"If there are no clean rivers, what do we go rollin’ on?"
The Manila Bay cleanup reminds us of other waterways that need to be rehabilitated, among them the Pasig River.
The river used to be an essential part of people’s lives. They washed and bathed in it, drew drinking water from it for themselves and their domestic animals, fished in it, and sailed along its 25-kilometer (16-mile) length from Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay. All kinds of goods were transported along it. And during the colonial period the stately homes of wealthy people were built along its banks, among them Malacañang Palace.
The river figures in the first line of Jose Rizal’s ‘El Filibusterismo’: “One December morning the steamship Tabo struggled upstream along the winding Pasig, carrying a great number of passengers to the province of La Laguna.”
In that same chapter Rizal refers to the river’s busy life in the late 19th century, with “barges, boats, and coconut rafts of the natives” plying the river, and “laundresses and bathers on the river banks.”
From the 1950s onward, industrial pollution, negligence, and poor waste management methods exacerbated by the proliferation of factories and the influx of informal settlers took their toll on the river, and in 1990 it was declared biologically dead.
Among the groups trying to bring the river back to life is the government’s Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission.
Created in 1999, the agency’s mission (as posted on its website) is “to transform Pasig River and its environs into a showcase of a new quality of urban life,” with the goal of restoring “river water quality to Class C level.”
Class C water quality means water that can sustain fishes and other aquatic life, and support “secondary recreations like boating, and water for manufacturing processes after treatment.”
Led by its Executive Director Jose Antonio “Pepeton” Goitia, PRRC tries its best to fulfill its duties despite a shortage of manpower (and of its 200 workers only about 20 have plantilla positions) and an inadequate budget (around P232 million last year, with 48 percent of that or P112 million going to fund the agency’s Riverbanks Development and Flood Control Program).
The agency also lacks police powers to penalize the commercial and individual violators of water pollution and waste management laws, showing there is a need to revamp its outdated charter, Executive Order No. 54.
The agency has heavy responsibilities. “Its river rehabilitation and management model,” explained PRRC Information Officer Alyssa Miclat, “includes housing and resettlement [of informal settlers]; riverbank, transportation and tourism development; flood control; environmental management; and public information and advocacy programs.”
The rehoming of informal settlers is particularly important because it is estimated that 65 percent of the waste thrown into the Pasig River comes from their communities. Miclat said that from 1999 to 2018, the PRRC relocated almost 20,000 informal settler families living along the river, “many of [whom] were even residing over the estuaries and creeks and tons of garbage that [had] piled [up] underneath their makeshift houses.”
Today the river is home to more than a hundred species of fish, birds, trees, and water plants. “People now fish, travel, and do exercise along the Pasig River and its  tributaries,” said Miclat.
In Oct. 2018, the Pasig River beat the Yangtze River to be recognized by the International River Foundation as the 1stAsia Riverprize awardee at an international competition held in Sydney. The judges, Miclat said, “were really impressed with the scale of the problems the Pasig River faced and the scale of the response initiated by the PRRC.”
The PRRC seeks to engage public help for its river rehabilitation efforts through its Puso Para sa Ilog Pasig campaign. It informs and educates people through immersion and induction activities for various age groups.
“Immersion activities,” said Miclat, “involve a brief orientation about the rehabilitation model of the PRRC and what the [public] can do to help revive the Pasig River, followed by a visit to our livelihood center in BASECO or an estero tour and then cleanup.”
“In the communities,” she added, “people near the esteros…are oriented on their duties in the maintenance of the rehabilitated tributaries and linear parks as well as how to do proper segregation [of waste].”
There is still more work to do, so the PRRC, in collaboration with UP Planades, designed the Pasig River Integrated and Strategic Master Plan. Its goal is that by 2032, the Pasig River and its surrounding basins will be resilient life-sustaining ecosystems, through restoration strategies including management of water quality, stream flow, and catchments.
Perhaps by then, and hopefully much sooner, the Pasig River will be as clean or cleaner than it was during Jose Rizal’s time, and we will see along its banks the fishermen, boatmen, and bathers that he once saw.
The song ‘Proud Mary’ goes “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river…” If there are no clean rivers, what do we go rollin’ on? FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO