Process of resurrection continues for once-dead Pasig River

Katrin Hartmann

Posted at Apr 20 2019 04:59 PM

A renaturation program put together for Pasig River has been particularly effective in battling the problem of waste disposal in recent years. Katrin Hartmann

George De La Rama, spokesman for the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, says "there's still a lot to do" before the body of water could be fully rehabilitated. Jeffrey Hernaez, ABS-CBN News

A spokesman for the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission says “the most important thing is that people understand that the river is their environment, too.” Jeffrey Hernaez, ABS-CBN News

In terms of renaturing the Pasig River, “we’ve achieved a lot,” says rehabilitation commission spokesman George De La Rama. Jeffrey Hernaez, ABS-CBN News

Despite gaining strides in rehabilitation efforts, financial support for the Pasig River renaturation program remains meager. “We only have two boats that we can use,” says De La Rama.

For several years, natural signs of life have been observed once again in one of the world’s filthiest rivers. For that, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission has now been awarded a prize — a visit on the Pasig River by German exchange journalist Katrin Hartmann.

MANILA—Whiskered terns and black-headed gulls circle over the shimmering water. Below them, a man in a peaked cap is paddling. He glides slowly across the Pasig River in a canoe made of Styrofoam. The paddler looks to the left, then to the right and maneuvers his cuboid single-seater to a floating object. He stretches his suntanned arm into the river and fishes out the remains of an old plastic bottle.

“The people here are resourceful,” says George Oliver De La Rama, spokesman for the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), observing the action from a patrolling boat. “They have nothing, so they try to stay afloat by selling plastic.” These unregistered plastic sales are actually illegal, he says, but at least the searchers are helping getting rid of a small portion of the garbage that citizens still tip into the river.

The Pasig River, which snakes 27 kilometers through Metro Manila, is still among the world’s rivers which carry the most plastic waste to the sea. According to Greenpeace, more than 67,000 tons of garbage flow downstream each year, mainly during monsoon season. According to a study in Nature Communications, the river earned the title of “second biggest source of plastic waste for its size.” Greenpeace assumes that worldwide about 8 million tons of plastic end up in the seas each year. In other words, “one truckload of plastic waste per minute,” writes the environmental organization.

The problem dates back to the 1980s when industry and factories settled on its banks, disposing of chemicals and industrial waste in the river. In the 1990s, the Pasig River was declared biologically dead. No fish, no plant, no living organism could survive in the waterway. In some of the 47 branches of the river, the water could be crossed via piles of plastic. Beaches disappeared under the growing trash, and entire villages of tin huts settled on the dirty shorelines.

The metropolitan area lacks suitable space for landfills. Although Metro Manila has a municipal waste system, it is operated by 17 local and not one administrations.

However, the PRRC’s renaturation program has been particularly effective in battling the problem in recent years. Approximately 18,000 people were relocated from the floating landfills to housing blocks downstream. This is the main reason why the program has been awarded the Asian River Prize by the International River Foundation (IRF). Other reasons included the raising of local environmental awareness, the preservation of 37,000 meters of riverbank, the cleaning of 17 river branches and the diversion of nearly 22 million kilograms of waste. David, the Pasig River, has won the award over Goliath, the Yangtze in China.

The PRRC patrol boat is cruising under a bridge now. About 10 boys stand crowded on the bridge’s piers taking turns jumping into the water from the seven-meter-high projection: one with a somersault, one without, one holding his nose shut, another wriggling his legs. As the boat turns around to allow the guests on board to take a few snapshots, the children start up again, wiggling their rears, dancing and laughing.

De La Rama laughs back. “Does everyone have a photo yet?” he asks. For three years, the 34-year-old has been spokesman for the renaturation program. “We’ve achieved a lot,” he says, pointing at the birds circling the countless islands of water hyacinths. “Nature’s making a comeback,” he says, sounding enthusiastic. Aside from a lot of water plants, eight different species of fish have returned to the Pasig River.

The boat is passing islands of water hyacinths. One is too big, notes the captain, and slowly steers to it. Two helpers crank down a grate on an opening at the bow. The floating plant is swallowed up as if in the mouth of a hippopotamus. The men pull up the plant. An old slipper and a plastic bottle also appear. They stuff it in a sack. “If the hyacinths grow beyond a certain size, they sink to the bottom and clog the river,” explains De La Rama. This is why the everyday routine of the patrol boat includes fishing things out.

Financial support for the renaturation program is meager. “We only have two boats that we can use,” says De La Rama. With four to 10 people, PRRC checks the inflows and the growth of water hyacinths several times a week. “Unfortunately, we can’t get out every day because we don’t have enough money for petrol.” Over the past eight years, the program was provided with $4 million “That’s peanuts in an international comparison,” says De La Rama.

The PRRC partners with the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), which not only works on the Pasig River garbage problem, but has to find solutions for the traffic problem in the metropolitan area, as well. “If we had four ferries per hour running on the river, we would get 78,000 commuters off the streets,” adds De La Rama.

Is the rehabilitation of the Pasig River even possible? “There’s still a lot to do. What we’ve done is just a start,” says De La Rama, looking at the waving people and fishermen on the riverbank. “The most important thing is that people understand that the river is their environment, too.”

This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut’s Close-Up journalists’ exchange programme. For more information, go to www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and #goethecloseup.