River of Renaissance

By Lorraine LorenzoApril 1, 2018

Once a symbol of shame, the Pasig River flows to a renewed image

THE 27-KILOMETER Pasig River, which connects major cities in Metro Manila from Manila Bay to Laguna de Bay, used to be a symbol of everything that went wrong in the National Capital Region. The historical and once economically viable river became the picture of unchecked progress which led to the neglect and deterioration of the environment. It became a representation of the city’s filth and decay.

But not anymore.

With the filthiest muck dredged from its riverbed, it was declared biologically dead in the 1990s by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Today, the Pasig River is slowly making a comeback, and is slowly yet surely proving that all hope is not lost when dedication, political will, and community cooperation comes together to save what was once Manila’s most glorious body of water.


Glorious past

The Pasig River played a very important role in the country’s history and economic growth. During the Spanish times, the river is the only entry to the city, and its strategic location made it easier for the foreign colonizers to keep track of who enters the country. It is located beside what was then the seat of power – Intramuros. It is also near the country’s busiest trade center and the world’s oldest Chinatown – Binondo.

Traders in galleon ships would enter Manila via the Pasig River, and they would do business along the port of Escolta, known then as the first business district of the country. The name Manila was also said to have been derived from the river – nilad trees, planted at the mouth of the major body of water, signified arrival in the city, with traders declaring ‘may nilad’ once they see the plants upon entering the waterway.

The term ‘Tagalog’ was also said to have originated from the heart of the Pasig River, as ‘Tagalog’ was said to be an endonym for Manila, which refers to its locals as ‘taga-ilog’ or ‘from the river.’ The busy trading and political movement made Pasig River one of the most significant bodies of water not only in the Philippines, but also the world. Old photos of the river can be found in various foreign libraries, showcasing its significant contribution not only to the country’s colorful past, but its significant role in key historical events like the Spanish colonization in Asia, and even World War 2. Aside from this, the river’s position makes it a tidal estuary of both the Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay, keeping both areas around the two bodies of water from being flooded during extreme weather conditions.


Steady decline

After the second World War, however, scientists began to notice a decline in the river’s water quality. Records gathered by the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), the government arm tasked with the revival of the Pasig River, showed that in the 1930’s, there was a recorded decrease in fish migration from Laguna de Bay. In the 1950’s, there was a noticeable decline in the people’s bathing activities along the river.  During the 1960’s there was a steep drop in both bathing and washing activities.

Further infrastructure construction and industry growth along the banks of the river in the 1970’s further deteriorated the condition of the river — it began to smell bad from all the garbage and chemical waste dumped in the river, and the water quality fell below Class ‘C’ level.

Informal settlers, and more industry growth halted all fishing activities during the 1980’s as the river became a large sewer system. During the 1990’s, the Pasig River was officially declared to be biologically dead, with no marine plants and animals being recorded for any river activity.

“Studies on Pasig River’s condition showed that 70 percent of the waste collected from the water is from domestic waste, human waste which came from informal settlers living by the river, while 20 percent are industrial waste,” said George De La Rama, head of the Public Information, Advocacy, and Tourism Division of PRRC.

Aside from these, various private groups and industries built most of their structures without following the required 10-meter easement from the banks of the river – making it easier for these companies to dump industrial waste straight into the river.


Restoration efforts

During the 1990’s, the first efforts to revive the river was jumpstarted by former First Lady Amelita ‘Ming’ Ramos, who noticed the poor state of the river from the back of Malacanang. Through the Clean and Green initiative, the ‘Piso Para Sa Pasig’ was launched, which funded the first efforts to uplift the dire state of the Pasig River.

Piso Para Sa Pasig became more of an awareness campaign, and it successfully established the importance of reviving Manila’s premier body of water. In 1999, the PRRC was created by virtue of Executive Order No. 54 of former President Joseph Estrada, to ensure that the Pasig River System is “rehabilitated to a pristine condition that is able to support and sustain aquatic life and resources and is conducive for transport, recreation, and tourism.”

The major activities of the river revival included years of dredging through the use of Underwater Placement with Overdepth Capping (UPOC) to dispose of contaminated materials from the river. This involves construction of a pit located underneath the seabed, and wherein cell blocks are used as dumping ground of sediments dredged from below the Pasig River. The dredging has greatly improved the water quality of the Pasig River, and officials noticed that marine life has returned a few years after the dredging activity started. The dredging has improved river depth from four meters to six meters — making it readier to be a catch basin during flooding around Metro Manila.

When former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez became the chairperson of PRRC, the focus of the clean-up shifted along the creeks or estero which lead towards the main body of water. She said that clean-up of the river would be useless if people will continue to dump waste in the creeks that also lead towards Pasig River.

A total of 47 estero have been identified to be directly connected to the river, 14 of which have already been rehabilitated by relocating informal settlers living by the creeks, and turning most of them into pocket parks to discourage people from throwing garbage on the water. This improvement not only improved the quality of life of the residents, but also reduced crime by as much as 40 percent in these areas.

There are also four tributaries or other major rivers directly connected to Pasig River which have also started their own rehabilitation programs.

To date, the Pasig River rehabilitation project has kept more than 17,000 informal settler families from living along the danger zones, and 36,000 linear meters of environmental preservation areas have been established since 1999 within the Pasig River System.

During the last count last year, a total of 4,793,262.80 kilograms of solid waste have also been diverted from the waterways. PRRC has also began working on livelihood programs that aim to empower community beneficiaries on its developed waterways, relocation sites, and other project areas by promoting handicraft projects such as turning hyacinth plants that grow on the river into various home and fashion items.

PRRC, under Executive Director Jose Antonio Goitia, also shared other plans to restore the Pasig River as an important element in Metro Manila development, including plans to put up a multi-modal transport system which includes the Pasig River Ferry Service and a possible elevated railway system along the riverbanks that aims to connect Manila to Laguna de Bay. The plan hopes to help reduce traffic in the metro.

A new motto, ‘Puso Para Sa Pasig’, was also launched to remind communities and those living within Metro Manila, that more than monetary support, they need commitment and heart that they will do their part to help preserve the river’s ongoing improvement efforts.


Continuing challenges

Although efforts that aim to protect and rehabilitate the Pasig River have been strong and efficient, the PRRC admits that there are continuing challenges along the way. There are still quite a number of informal settlers that need to be relocated (many of whom are repeat offenders that have already been offered new homes), while big real estate companies still violate the easement required to construct by the river.

The Pasig River Ferry, which could actually ease EDSA traffic as it gives commuters another option to travel, only has less than five boats that actually function (the MMDA had 15 at the start). The PRRC hopes that this could be changed in the near future, as there’s so much potential in diverting commuters to traverse the river.

During our recent tour, it was obvious that the body of water is well on its way to recovery. There was no foul smell coming from the river from the whole stretch from Manila Bay to Guadalupe station of the Pasig River Ferry route.

Signs of garbage dumping have significantly reduced, except for some parts of Baseco in Tondo. Children can also actually be seen enjoying a dip in the water in several parts of the river.

The glory days of the Pasig River can now be looked upon as not just a part of the past – there’s now renewed hope to see a better river in the future!