Cleaning up the Pasig River
ONE of the stories related to me by my late father about his friends’ exploits while they were still students at the Ateneo (before the War), were the times they played hookey and swam across the Pasig River. Needless to say, they would often get caught and earned the ire of the Jesuit prefects of discipline. But the point being made here is that, in those days, the Pasig was clean enough to attract people to jump in for a relaxing swim. Many years later, I found myself helping the late Roberto T. Villanueva, a good friend of my late father, as a consultant in the newly established office euphemistically referred to as the Coordinating Council for Philippine Assistance Program (CCPAP). The CCPAP was charged with overseeing the inflow and expenditure of bilateral and multilateral funds meant to help spur or maintain economic and social development. One time, it was suggested that I look into the cleaning of both the Pasig River and Laguna de Bay. As a committed environmentalist, this was the sort of project that got me excited, until I made a series of phone calls to development agencies and donor institutions. In short, they said that there were dozens of clean-up studies floating around, and that only political will was needed to get the project off the ground. The problems of the Pasig and Laguna de Bay are numerous, and some of the proposed solutions only serve to exacerbate rather than alleviate the problems concerned. First, and most obvious, is the amount of garbage together with human and industrial waste being dumped into the two water systems daily. So, cleaning up the river and the lake would have to go beyond carting off the garbage and waste on a one-time basis, or, even on a regular basis. More important would be to attack the core of the problem and stop the people and institutions from dumping waste into the two systems. And this is where political will comes in. For example, in countries like Korea and Taiwan that had similar problems, they tackled the problems with gusto and hacked away at the sources of pollutants until, to a large extent, their riverine and lake systems were cleansed. I saw this in various trips to Korea over decades where the Korean authorities literally created a buffer of land between the roads & human habitats and the rivers. In the case of the Han River, for example, one sees parks and playgrounds right beside the riverbanks, and no one is allowed to simply dump garbage or waste directly into the river. I would also venture a guess that they make extensive use of waste treatment plants before any of the waste water is reintroduced into the water systems. In the case of the Pasig, therefore, one would have to literally move the illegal human structures away from riverbanks and into new habitats further inland. The vacated areas must then be quickly converted into parks or playgrounds before new sets of squatters move in. This is where political will comes in because the rights of the people soon to be dispossessed must be respected, but their eviction also pursued. Industrial polluters must also be “convinced” to invest in waste treatment plants so that whatever is treated is recycled or pumped into the river in a literally drinkable state. Anyone who is familiar with the Pasig River and Laguna de Bay knows that both are heavily silted. Instead of the former depths of about 5 meters, we now have average depths of only 2 to 3 meters. A top view of the lake on Google Maps will show not only the proliferation of fishpens, but also the extent of the siltation. Most of the silt emanates from the nearby Sierra Madre range and the foothills that abound in Rizal and Laguna provinces. The wanton destruction of forest cover and nature habitats has resulted in the loss not only of precious topsoil, but any other kind of soil, leaving these areas previously rich in tropical growth now relatively barren. Talk of dredging the river must consider that the Pasig is a relatively short waterway. Its mouth in Manila Bay is not too far from the other end, Laguna de Bay. The water flows back and forth depending on the tides, making it difficult to consider bringing in large dredgers to do said work. The problem is compounded by the very low overhangs of many of the bridges that span the river, a prime example of which is Jones Bridge. Dredging the river cannot be done in isolation of the wave action at its mouth in Manila Bay and the silted area that is Laguna de Bay. Then, there is also the problem of what to do first: Clean up or Dredge or Aerate, etc. Those of us who are topical fish hobbyists laugh at the fears expressed by many on the presence of the so-called Janitor Fish, which is more properly called Plecostomus. A computer search of the species will make one realize that what they accuse the fish of being is not really correct. I have had this species of armored catfish in my aquarium tanks and in the relatively large fishpond I have at home, and have yet to see signs of the behavior they are accused of. The Pleco subsists on a diet of algae and small crustaceans, and maybe the small occasional fish that wanders into its mouth while it is feeding in its typical upside-down position. Myth busted! The task is a Herculean one, and I salute Ms Gina Lopez and her Bantay Kalikasan Foundation, together with the government agencies that have finally bit the bullet and started on this interesting exercise. This will not succeed overnight, and will probably be a 10- to 20-year project. Then, just maybe, my generation may be able to jump into the Pasig to take the proverbial swim without gagging on the refuse and detritus that plagues the river just now.
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