The master plan that brought Iloilo River back to life 2
In 2018, the Iloilo-Batiano River Development Project was bestowed a Galing Pook Awardee for championing ecological. Photo by Joebel Galicto

How Iloilo City brought its river back to life and back to its people

The Iloilo River has been providing some hard up Ilonggos food on the table, and the city continued growth
Rhick Lars Vladimer Albay | Nov 04 2021

Salvador Carmona wakes up at dawn on most days to bike three kilometers from Barrio Obrero to the Drilon Bridge in Iloilo City Proper, lugging his makeshift fishing gear and a canteen of water.

Despite being smack dab at the heart of the developing locale, the Iloilo River has begun to teem with marine life once again this past decade—the result of efforts by the local government unit and private sector to revitalize this national treasure.

Iloilo River
The rehabilitation of the estuarine has largely been made possible through the efforts of the Iloilo Batiano River Development Council. Photo by Joebel Galicto

Carmona, the 54-year-old Ilonggo laborer, shares that he’s been fishing along the Iloilo River for five years now. In the beginning, it was just a form of recreation during weekend, and as a means to occasionally trawl for fish he can cook and serve to his family of five.

At the height of the pandemic last year, however, Carmona found himself frequenting his angling spot more often in a bid to provide for his household, having found himself among the 4.2 million Filipinos who lost their jobs due to the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.

His circumstance is echoed in the lives of dozens of other local anglers who cast their lines along the Iloilo River in the hopes of reeling in fish. 

In his late 20s, John Allan Chavez worked as a “promodiser” at a popular hardware chain before being furloughed late last year. He has since decided to take care of his disadvantaged son full time while his wife has become the sole breadwinner of the family. On weekends, Chavez cycles to the Quirino-Lopez Bridge to catch lapu-lapu and small crabs he can bring home for a meal later that night. 

Similarly, stevedore Christopher Guzman of Jalandoni has found himself frequenting his fishing spot more and more these past few months as work got lesser, with fewer fastcraft trips between Iloilo and Bacolod, and hardly any shop owners in Iloilo’s “Super” Public Market needing more haulers.

Daw adlaw-adlaw ari ko di,” Carmona shared in his native Hiligaynon. “Pang sud-an-sud-an lang, pero kung kis-a, kung may sobra, gina-baligya ko man para may inugbakal bakal ko bugas o karne kay subong wala gid ko abi obra.”

[“I’m here almost every day. Mostly just for fish for our own meals, although sometimes, if I have an especially good catch, I try to sell it so I can have enough to buy rice and meat for my family. I don’t have any work nowadays.]

Iloilo River
Collaborating with the city’s diverse pool of young artists, City Hall has also increased efforts in the installation of public art along the Iloilo River Esplanade and Mulle Looney area. Photo by Joebel Galicto

Carmona found himself at a loss last year after being displaced from work as a laborer and carpenter due to the extended community quarantine. To make up for the loss of income, he’s taken to heading to his regular fishing grounds, sometimes twice a day — early in the morning and in the late afternoon, armed with his old fishing line and improvised “bintol” (crab traps) he’s cobbled together using barbeque sticks and nylon rope.

He says it’s become increasingly difficult to spend long days under the sun as a skilled laborer, hampered as he is with back pains and his advanced age. Even as the quarantines eased late last year, he decided to no longer seek out heavy construction work, settling instead on fishing and “pamintol” to contribute in providing for his household.

Muni nalang subong akun pang-adlaw-adlaw,” he explained. “Kung mapanimungko lang man ko sa balay wala obra, kung gab-i wala man ako lulutuon. Hindi pareho sini nga gamay nga pasensya lang may ara ka na dawat, alimango, kasag, kis-a may sobra pa. May pinangitan-an na ko sa is aka adlaw.”

[“This has become my daily life. If I let myself just rot at home without any work, when the night comes I won’t have any food I can cook. Not unlike when I started to fish regularly. With just a little patience I can catch shell-fish and even crabs, sometimes more than I need. It’s enough as a source of livelihood for a day.]

For Carmona, fishing along the Iloilo River has given him newfound respect for the waterway, especially as he has witnessed firsthand its renewal from an urban cesspool to a flourishing body of water in the last decade.

During our interview, a plastic bag tugs at his line and Carmona reels it in. Apart from catching fish, he and his fellow anglers in the area have taken to gathering garbage they stumble upon while fishing. They dispose of the collected trash properly later in the day—it’s their way to give back to the natural estuarine for providing them a means to feed their families. 

Carmona’s affinity to the Iloilo River seems partly compelled by the location of his home barangay, coastal Barrio Obrero, bound by salt beds to the west, the Guimaras Strait to the east, and the mouth of the Iloilo River to the south. Out of the 180 barangays in Iloilo City, Barrio Obrero is among 35 that sit along the banks of Iloilo River.

“Most of the Philippines’ oldest towns and now largest urban settlements were started beside rivers and beside coasts,” explains landscape architect and PGAA Creative Design founder Paulo G. Alcazaren, one of the champions of the Iloilo River whose firm designed the Iloilo River Esplanade. “Our main mode of transportation was by water before the advent of modern vehicles and roads. So historically all of our communities were by the water.

“However, in modern times, these same rivers and waterways have become the sewers of our towns and cities. [They’ve become] degraded,” Alcazaren continued. “We [no longer] understand the contributions that rivers and esteros give to our cities have and rivers. We abuse [them]. We clog waterways and pollute rivers. [We] turn a blind eye to factories and industries exploiting them, and informal settlements filling them with untreated septage. It’s why a lot of our waterways are dead or dying and in dire need of being brought back [to life].”

Iliolo River
Iloilo River is an important natural resource located at the heart of Iloilo City. Photo by Joebel Galicto

Teeming with life 

Endemic mangroves play a large part in the overall health of the Iloilo River and its diverse flora and fauna.

“The mangrove in itself is already an ecosystem,” mused Iloilo-based scientist Dr. Jurgenne Primavera, chief scientific mangrove advisor of the Zoological Society of London, explaining how the vital flora helps sustain life.

species diversity survey in 2017 found that the Iloilo River is home to nine different families of mangroves but the most common were the medium-sized trees Avicennia alba (locally known as “bungalon,” “api-api,” or “alipata”) that could grow between 5 to 12 meters, Bruguiera gymnorrhiza (referred to as “pototan” or “bakhawan” by Ilonggos and Antiqueños), Sonneratia caseolaris (“kalong-kalong”), and Sonneratia ovata (“pedada”). 

A Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, Primavera explains that, impressively, mangroves are known for their ability to foster high biodiversity and self-sustaining ecosystems. These hardy networks of trees and shrubs thrive in coastal saline or brackish waters, and they sustain much of the estuarine’s marine life and habitat—not only the finned fishes like sea “bulgan” (sea bass), “managat" (mangrove jack), "alimusan" (mudfish), milkfish, catfish, tilapia, and stingray, but also different species of crab and seashells, as well as the notably rare emerald shrimp species, Metapenaues insolitus.

Iloilo City’s growing bird-watching community has also noted that the resurgence of mangroves in the locale has heralded the return of migratory waterbirds to the river, enriching an already diverse population of kingfishers, egrets, herons, “tikling” (buff-banded rail), “maya” (Philippine oriole), “trivis,” “tigbabalang,” and “tarurok,” among others, in the area.

With this in mind, Primavera suggested that it may be in the city’s best interest to consider adopting economic incentives to encourage business owners to commit more fully to the protection of Iloilo’s swathes of mangroves. 

“Maybe the city can incentivize establishments that host patches of mangroves that sit along their properties,” she explained. “I don’t know, [maybe award] tax breaks to businesses that help these valuable members of our ecosystems not only survive but thrive.”

Iloilo City has been quite active in promoting environmental protection despite its high rate of urbanization. Studies note that low awareness of the ecological and economic values of mangroves has led to their neglect in conservation and biodiversity protection plans. In Iloilo City, the revitalization of the Iloilo River and its pockets of mangroves has led to anecdotal evidence that real property values along the banks have ballooned since the start of the rehabilitation.

In a report, Danilo Lorilla, Chief of Conservation and Development Division of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Office - Iloilo, noted that some 2,824,224 mangroves have been planted in 43 local government units in Iloilo Province and Iloilo City between 2011 and 2018 – made possible through the help of thousands of volunteers from both the government and private sector, as well as the academe.

Over the last decade, the Iloilo Batiano River Development Council (IBRDC) has initiated mangrove reforestation efforts along the Iloilo River, the Batiano River, Dungon Creek, Ingore Creek, Mansaya Creek, as well as the coastlines of Brgy. Baluarte and Brgy. San Juan. These sites have witnessed richer growths of endemic mangroves Avicennia marina (“bungalon” or “api-api”), Rhizophora stylosa (“bakhaw bato”) and Sonneratia alba (“pagatpat”).

The rest of the Philippines suffers an abysmal mangrove deforestation rate, losing at least 0.5 percent of its 356,000 hectares of saline forests every decade, according to a 2018 study by the University of the Philippines Los Baños, with most mangroves standing on the brink of complete collapse after being converted to aquaculture ponds, agricultural farms, and settlement areas.

Although mangroves along the Iloilo River are largely protected, they are not exempt from threats of encroachment, sitting in a precarious position especially as land use along the waterway increases, with developers building mid-rise apartments and other business establishments along the banks to take advantage of the estuarine’s unique vistas and strategic location.

“The poor luck of mangroves along Iloilo River is that they are adjacent to or located on probably some of the highest-priced real estate in the city,” bemoaned Primavera, who spearheaded the publication of the taxonomic “Handbook of Mangroves in the Philippines - Panay” in 2004.

“Let’s face it, the Iloilo River is prime real estate, it’s an open invitation for [more business-minded] individuals to discuss and weigh the economic value of the land where these mangroves flourish compared to their contributions to our local ecosystem,” she continued, noting how mangrove parks in Leganes, Iloilo Province and Ibajay and Kalibo, Aklan have higher densities and biodiversity simply because they are located in rural areas.

The Iloilo City Tourism and Development Office (CTDO) recently announced plans to champion the Iloilo River as an educational ecotourism hub and launch an “eco-trail” app that would enable students and tourists to use geotagging to spot and differentiate the diverse local species of mangroves as they stroll along the phases of the Iloilo River Esplanade. In partnership with the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV), the proposal is seen as a way to further instill the importance of mangrove conservation, especially among the youth.

With these positive developments, the Iloilo City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) has been spurred to come up with plans to develop two eco-park developments for mangroves in the city: at the Hinactacan-Ingore area and at the mouth of Batiano River.

Iloilo River
Iloilo River's strategic location gives it an edge for development because it traverses the hub of major activity in the city. Photo by Joebel Galicto

Tale of two rivers 

According to a study published by the Nature Communications journal, more than two-thirds of the plastic waste released into oceans annually can be ascribed to only 20 top polluting rivers. 

Oceanographers from Netherlands-based The Ocean Cleanup in 2017 reported that the Philippines’ Pasig River rang in as the No. 8 top contributor of mismanaged plastic waste in the world, responsible for 63,000 tons of plastic entering oceans per year, as echoed by the Climate Change Commission. These rivers traverse cities that account for only 21 percent of the global population. Despite this, however, some 67 percent of the world’s annual plastic pollution come from these waterways. 

In Southeast Asia, the Philippine waterway is outpaced only by Indonesia, with its four main inlets (the Brantas, Solo, Serayu and Progo rivers), accounting for plastic emission of 200,000 tonnes (around 14.2% of the global total). 

In a 2020 study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 18 other Philippine rivers were named alongside the Pasig River as among the top 50 polluting waterways in the world. Most of these bodies of water sit alongside some of the country’s major industrialized cities.

The disparity between the Pasig River and Iloilo River has led some to draw parallels between the filth-laden degradation and standstill of the latter, and the former’s seeming success story. However, urbanist and advocate Alcazaren points out that the two waterways are completely different creatures, although the mighty Pasig can serve as a cautionary tale for its Visayan counterpart.

The Iloilo River is only some two-thirds the length of the 25.2-kilometer Pasig River and, with its hundreds of esteros, the Pasig crosses six different metropolitan LGUs—rendering it almost impossible to synchronize cleanup efforts of the congested autonomous cities that line its banks. 

“The case of the river Pasig [is a prime example] that shows our cities are growing at a faster rate than anyone had expected and our governments and planners are still trying to catch up,” Alcazaren said. 

“The reality of our socioeconomic quagmire is that for the last five decades, our focus has been on just trying to survive. [It is] part of the reason we cannot progress, our towns and cities don't support our basic lives, don’t provide us with shelter and equality, and can’t even [sustain a] bare minimum quality of life,” continued the landscape architect, one of the most vocal critics of the proposed Pasig River Expressway (PAREX), San Miguel Corporation’s P95-billion six-lane elevated tollway project seen to shroud the Pasig River in its shadow.

Recent findings on the Pasig River catchment showed that at least 4.4 million people live along the banks of the major estuarine. However, only 600,000, or 12 percent of these homes, are fully serviced by sewerage systems that treat domestic wastewater before discharging it into the Pasig River.

“In crafting a Comprehensive Land Use Plan, the task of any city is to project its potential for large-scale growth. All cities are different. And so all solutions need to be site-specific. It’s a city’s responsibility to find out where it is wanting and where it can grow, as well as how to continue to provide all the basic necessities of its people, [even as] its populations expand,” concluded Alcazaren.

It was only in 2004 when the Philippine Clean Water Act (Republic Act No. 9275) was implemented did the conservation of the country’s natural water resources become a state priority. The law aimed to protect the country’s water bodies from contamination from land-based polluters including industries, commercial establishments, agriculture, and household activities.

Iloilo River
Iloilo River is envisioned to become a new “focal point of Iloilo City’s identity,” a testament to how highly-urbanized cities need not sacrifice their environmental resources to attain rapid development. Photo by Joebel Galicto

Collaborative symbiosis

In 2018, the Iloilo-Batiano River Development Project was heralded a Galing Pook Awardee for championing ecological sustainability and fostering a “sense of security and livability.” That same year, the Iloilo River Esplanade was given a Haligi ng Dangal Award by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, recognizing the endeavor for generating vibrant and walkable public spaces vital in today’s urban civic life.

This last decade, the estuary has increasingly become an integral element in most of the local government unit’s landmark infrastructure projects, considering the body of water as a local icon and a symbol of the city’s prospects in sustainable growth and development.

The mammoth endeavor has largely been made possible through the efforts of the multi-partite Iloilo Batiano River Development Council (IBRDC), a body guided by the concept of inter-cultural planning, largely inspired by the philosophy of “symbiosis” — an interaction between two or more different organisms living in close physical association, typically mutually beneficial and to the advantage of all parties.

In its initial 2003 master plan, the council highlighted being spurred into action by the  “[rapidly] deteriorating” condition of the Iloilo River, with the estuary characterized by “economic blights,” derelict ships, and frequent floods made worse by pollution-choked drainages, as well as anecdotal accounts of a foul stench emanating from the waterway, especially during the summer months. 

The river at the time was largely deprived of appropriate protection and maintenance both in terms of physical infrastructure and legislation. Aside from its inaccessibility to the public — its banks and easements dotted with informal settlers and stilt houses — domestic and industrial effluents heavily contaminated the inlet with little to no regulation. The river was also adversely affected by siltation, encroachment, and illegal structures. 

By 2005, the Iloilo River Development Master Plan was rolled out, a ten-year blueprint that outlined actionable steps for the renewal of the estuarine, grounded on the impetus of the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan at the time, and crafted to promote widespread agency coordination among the concerned government offices, as well as the private sector and other stakeholders. 

Championed by Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas and Senator Franklin Drilon at the time, this first “masterplan” was drafted by the Iloilo Business Club and IBRDC with a grant from USAID's US-Asia Environmental Partnership (US-AEP).

Key elements of the “master plan” were identifying conservation and restoration areas, confronting issues on water pollution and complying with water quality standards, “greening” the banks of the river and fostering sustainable land use, and pursuing the economic potential of the Iloilo River while prudently considering environmental impact, among others.

The council spent the next few years making considerable strides to address these concerns. However, the IBRDC’s true breakthrough came in August 2012 when the first length of the Iloilo River Esplanade was first opened to the public. The initial 1.2-kilometer linear park traced its namesake waterway from Diversion Road to Carpenter Bridge in Molo District, a green strip of paved and landscaped public space that boasted of reinvigorated mangroves lining its banks. 

Nine phases of the esplanade have since been completed, traversing the districts of Lapaz, Lapuz, Mandurriao, Molo, and Iloilo City Proper, now some 10 kilometers in total of walkable open community space, parts of which double as bike routes for the locale’s growing cyclist community — complimenting the dedicated 5-kilometer bike lanes along Diversion road.

“When it comes to the dynamics between regional line agencies, the local government, and the private sector, [more often than not] each has their own mandate, their own calendar, their own endeavors. Seldom do you see all three cut across the line and contribute to one big project,” said Lea Lara, executive director of the Iloilo Business Club, Inc.

“By some stroke of luck or spurred by a common objective, I think we had about 23 national agencies that got involved in the project, not to mention the private sector. The Iloilo River is the only example in the Philippines I can think of wherein a local initiative saw a lot of national government funding being poured in to implement a local plan,” Lara continued.

The council is chaired by the Iloilo City mayor, with representatives from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Public Works and Highways, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Department of Agriculture (DA), Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), City Environment and Natural Resources (CENRO), City Planning and Development Office (CPDO), Iloilo City Urban Poor Affairs Office (ICUPAO), the University of the Philippines Visayas, and the Iloilo Business Club, among others.

“It wasn’t an undertaking solely mounted by the LGU or a single line agency. The DENR took the responsibility of monitoring the waters of the river, PPA spearheaded the clearing of rundown ships along Mulle Loney, NHA (National Housing Authority) stepped in to provide housing for those displaced by the settlement clearing operations, among others,” Lara related. “It was a truly inter-government and public-private effort.”

Upcoming infrastructure plans include the Iloilo River North Avenue (Iloilo Sunset Boulevard), the Iloilo Civic Center Project, the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council’s renewal of the historical downtown area, as well as further expansions of the Iloilo River Esplanade. Meanwhile, the development of the North Iloilo Riverbank Road from Brgy. Tabucan, Mandurriao District to Brgy. Mohon, Arevalo District — with a 4-lane concrete road, esplanade, and dedicated bike lane —  is already underway.

Most of the indigents and informal settlers displaced by these river-adjacent projects have been offered housing in the 5.6-hectare Iloilo River Plains Subdivision in Lanit, Jaro district, a nearly P169-million relocation effort. This project came from a confluence of resources from the National Housing Authority, the Iloilo City Urban Poor Affairs Office, Iloilo City Hall, and the office of Senator Franklin Drilon. A three-story integrated school and a church have since also been built in the fledgling community.

Collaborating with the city’s diverse pool of young artists, City Hall has also increased efforts in the installation of public art along the Iloilo River Esplanade and Mulle Looney area. This includes the painting of bridge murals, empty walls, and fences facing the waterways and a handful of monuments dotting the esplanade.

Iloilo River
“The Iloilo River project has become valuable not just as an economic development tool for attracting investments but also as a means for us to preserve our history, our heritage, and our culture,” said Iloilo Economic Development Foundation executive director Francis Gentoral.

Ilonggo icon 

The Iloilo River, an invaluable artery of commerce since the Spanish era, has contributed immensely to Iloilo City’s largesse since the turn of the last century. With its unique features as a natural port (the inlet protecting ships from harsh waves especially during typhoon season) and the city’s strategic location in the country’s geography, Iloilo City became a major trading hub as early as 1855 when Negros and Panay Island’s sugar industry began to boom.

In the late 1800s, Iloilo became an important economic center in the Philippines, second only to Manila, thus it earned the name “Queen City of the South” during the Spanish era. A century and multiple regime changes later however, the Iloilo River fell into decline beginning with the sugar crash of the 1960s, aggravated by unregulated encroachment and land use along its banks and an influx of more people into the city even as a new industrial and construction boom came in the 2000s.

Close to where the waterway empties out into the Guimaras Strait, Iloilo River’s industrial zone is now occupied by a number of oil depots, shipping companies, and flour mills. A shipping line to Palawan, the Iloilo-Bacolod Ferry Terminal operated by the Philippine Ports Authority, and the privately-run Roll-On-Roll-off Ferry to Guimaras Island are also located in the area. Warehouses, container yards and gasoline stations also abound here. The river stretches from Rotary Park, Parola to the municipality of Oton where it joins Batiano River in Barangay San Antonio.

For the past ten years, the Iloilo River has been a subject of multiple efforts from the national and local government, private groups, and civil society organizations.

“The Iloilo River project has become valuable not just as an economic development tool for attracting investments but also as a means for us to preserve our history, our heritage, and our culture,” said Iloilo Economic Development Foundation executive director Francis Gentoral. “Most, if not all, of the Philippines’ major cities grew alongside rivers and coasts, and Iloilo City is no different. However, as time went on, our relationship to the body of water gradually grew incredibly distant.”

The Iloilo River is an important natural resource. Its strategic location gives it an edge for development because it traverses the hub of major activity in the city. It offers the necessary space and atmosphere that can support development while preserving its ecological value.

“With the revitalization of the Iloilo River, the city unwittingly set into motion a chain reaction, a ripple of unprecedented development and change. From the grandeur of Esplanade 1 inspiring nine other phases, to national developers realizing the potential of Iloilo City and the beauty of the Iloilo River, to a windfall of optimistic investors, to accolades for the efforts of the River council. It all started with the dream of rehabilitating the Iloilo River,” mused Atty. Arjun Calvo, EMB- 6 special planning officer for the rehabilitation of Iloilo and Batiano Rivers.

“However, I believe the most important thing to have come out of this endeavor is a newfound love for the environment and green conscience in the Ilonggos,” added Calvin. “You can see it from our growing community of cyclists to large turnouts and participation in our cleanup and mangrove planting activities.”

Moving forward, the official envisions the Iloilo River as a new “focal point of Iloilo City’s identity,”  a testament to how highly-urbanized cities need not sacrifice their environmental resources to attain rapid development, and proof that the seemingly clashing forces of sustainability and growth, although difficult, can be balanced.

“Projects like the Iloilo River Esplanade and the Iloilo River Rehabilitation initiative have brought the Ilonggos once again closer to the water,” said Engr. Noel Z. Hechanova, head of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO). “They’ve made people aware of the true value of this indispensable resource and heightened our awareness and appreciation for the conservation efforts of the city. The Iloilo River is a success story shared by all, the product of wide-scale collaboration of an involved Ilonggo community.”