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Political will and the Iloilo River

To this cynical old journalist who has just about lost hope we can do things like clean up a dirty river, new hope was rekindled by my visit over the weekend to Iloilo. It was not just me. My colleagues, all skeptics because of our long experience covering government, felt the same way too.

Indeed, the first question we almost cried out in unison was: can we do that for Pasig River? Despite the tireless effort of Gina Lopez, it is beginning to look like she has met her match with the Pasig River clean up.

Gina, according to Iloilo City officials, visited them some time ago and saw for herself what had been accomplished with the Iloilo River. By the time she was ready to go back to Manila, she reportedly had to admit to Iloilo officials that their system works because they are united and have political will. Poor Gina has to deal not with just one city but several cities and towns along the Pasig River.

I heard the factories along the Pasig River have mostly been able to install the right facilities to clean up their waste water before discharge to the Pasig River. In fact, many of them feel bad that they are discharging almost drinkable water into that cesspool of a river, now polluted by domestic wastes from river bank settlers.

Unlike in Iloilo, the Metro Manila governments do not think cleaning up the Pasig River is important enough. The lack of political will to deal with the squatters is why the Pasig is as filthy as ever. This is where Imperial Manila can learn a lot from the Queen City of the South.

Iloilo City Mayor Jed Mabilog explained the Iloilo River is as important to them as the Pasig River is to Metro Manilans. It has served as a major source of transportation, water, food, and livelihood for the community. “Our culture, history and heritage are anchored to the Iloilo River,” he said.

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Once home to seabirds, native fish and wild mangroves, the Iloilo River has through the years deteriorated into an open septic tank. Just like the Pasig River, it was clogged with plastics and garbage.

Due to years of neglect, squatters, rich and poor, encroached on the water ways. Chemicals and poor sewerage facilities added to the putrid smell of the river. Cleaning-up and redeveloping the Iloilo River required addressing pollution, sedimentation, depletion of mangrove areas, and proliferation of man-made constrictions, among others.

The Iloilo-Batiano River Development Council (IBRDC), composed of political and private sector leaders, was formed to undertake the effort. They recalled that they had to start by going back to the 1916 Cadastral Survey to identify the original boundaries of the river. The river’s flow had been altered through the years by illegal use that caused frequent floods in the city.

Removing the encroachments required tremendous political will because many of the culprits are influential. Cleaning required removing sunken derelicts, idle vessels, dikes and fishpens. A ship repair facility appropriated for its private use over a hectare of government land along the river bank.

What makes the mission to clean up the Iloilo River different from the Pasig River effort is its widespread support from citizens. It wasn’t just a lonesome Gina Lopez trying to clean the river, but the entire community. It made the political leaders bolder in making decisions that required tremendous political will.  

The collective efforts did not only resurrect the river, but made it into one of the most beautiful in the world. It started to win international recognition, first as finalist in the prestigious Thiess International River Prize award in Brisbane, Australia in 2013.

They then started to work on the river bank. This is how they came about with the idea to do the Iloilo River Esplanade & Bike Lanes. The expanded 2.9-kilometer long Iloilo River Esplanade in Mandurriao district, Iloilo City was established through the P70-million Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of Senate President Franklin M. Drilon.

If they used PDAF to do this, it was a very good use of the people’s money. Not only did the Ilonggos produce a beautiful people oriented public facility, they showed Filipinos can create a beautiful public park we might have thought was only possible in countries like Singapore.

Of course, Pinoys can do it. The Iloilo project was designed by Pinoy environmental architect Paulo Alcazaren, who was also responsible for designing similar projects in Singapore. Paulo explained to me that he got involved because the Iloilo officials saw “what I’d done for developments along the Singapore River and other parts of Singapore.”

Paulo reports that: “We have now completed the other side (to be opened by P-Noy in June). The improvements are to proceed all the way down to Muelle Loney near the Iloilo City Hall. We are also improving Aquino Boulevard, making a full 40 percent of it devoted to pedestrians, bikers and slow traffic.”

And like Singaporeans, the Ilonggos are following rules regarding the use of the Esplanade… no smoking… no food… no littering. The discipline unheard of in this country is happening in Iloilo because the Ilonggos have taken ownership of this beautiful development. I suppose this can happen elsewhere in the country too with the right leadership.

The cleansing of the Iloilo River, “has led to property values escalating 400-500 percent (yes, you read it right- 4-5X) the original values,” Paulo said. This rise in property values was confirmed to us by Mayor Mabilog who is happy to collect more property taxes.

Indeed, what they have achieved so far is already so uplifting to the Filipino spirit. Disheartened Filipinos should visit Iloilo soon to see for themselves what we are capable of doing if we set our minds, hearts and political will to accomplish our dreams.

The amazing thing is that they have accomplished so much in just four years, or less than the time the Aquino administration had been in power. While spade work in terms of feasibility studies was done by Jerry Trenas, the former mayor and now the congressman, the execution of the plans was carried out by current officials led by Mayor Mabilog. The speed of delivery is so not typical of our bureaucracy.

While the local officials did all the hard work on the ground, they were unanimous in giving credit to Senate President Frank Drilon for orchestrating everything and making sure things happened. In fact, many of them say Frank is just what the whole nation needs --- experienced (Sec of Labor, Justice and Executive Sec and twice Senate President), visionary and determined like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

Best of all, Frank has something to show the nation in Iloilo as proof of his capabilities and not just promises. I thought they had a point.

If Frank managed all that in four years, imagine what he could have done by way of infrastructure delivery if he was DOTC Secretary. Frank and the Ilonggo officials showed focus. They did not re-study the projects the way DOTC does. They went right on to implementation so that we now have something delightful to see. No analysis leading to paralysis.

 Next month, the main Independence Day celebration will be held at Santa Barbara, close to the Iloilo Airport. All eyes will be on the magic of Iloilo’s transformation. If the Liberals have overlooked the leadership potentials of Frank Drilon, what they will see on June 12 should open their eyes.

I may sound biased because I have known Frank from our UP days. But there is no argument once you see the stark difference he has caused to happen in Iloilo. No longer is Iloilo the armpit of Western Visayas as they used to joke in the past. It is fast regaining its Spanish era predominance, thanks to the unity forged by its officials and its private sector.

To make things even better, Iloilo must next work to have an export processing zone and a mass transport system. An industrial base will balance the growth from OFWs and BPOs. A mass transit system will provide transport for workers living in the old city to its new vibrant business district and prevent traffic jams before these develop.

Both projects, however, depend on national government agencies. PEZA must be convinced Iloilo can be a good location for an industrial zone. And DOTC must do what we know it cannot do... act quickly and give Iloilo a BRT system.

Making the bureaucracy in Imperial Manila work is probably more difficult than cleaning up the Iloilo River. That may be the test that would determine if Frank Drilon is ready to be not just Iloilo’s but the country’s Frank Kuan Yew.  Heaven knows how long we have waited for such a leader!

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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