Reviving Pasig River

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes (The Philippine Star) - June 13, 2021 - 12:00am

Business conglomerate San Miguel Corp. has just announced that it is increasing its budget to P2 billion, double the original amount, allotted for an ambitious five-year program to clean up Pasig River.

SMC, in partnership with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), other national government agencies, and Metro Manila mayors, officially launched the project which is set to become the largest ever river rehabilitation project in the country.

For the Pasig River rehabilitation project, SMC will extract around 50,000 metric tons of silt and waste every month or a total of 600,000 metric tons per year from the river. The initiative is similar to another SMC project that started last year, which is the cleanup of the 27-kilometer Tullahan-Tinajeros River system.

According to SMC president and CEO Ramon Ang, the restoration of the Pasig River system would balance the needs of the economy and the environment, as the company begins this year what it describes as the boldest attempt at reviving the biologically inactive river.

We can’t help but recall President Duterte’s statement in late 2019, when he called for the abolition of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), saying cleaning the famous river is a waste of time.

The President had said that nothing would happen unless every building is required to dispose their waste through a sewage or sewerage system.

But the President’s call for the PRRC’s abolition may also have stemmed from findings by the Commission on Audit that, while the commission spent 96 percent of its budget in 2018 or P107.6 million out of the P111 million allotted for the clearing of six waterways, it posted an accomplishment rate of just one percent to 27.65 percent.

In 2018, the PRRC was recognized by the International River Foundation for successfully bringing Pasig River back to life. The IRC lauded PRRC for removing almost 22 million kilos of solid waste from the river from 1999 to 2017 and for relocating over 18,000 families living along waterways.

Twenty two million kilos sounds a lot (anything that says millions sounds plenty), except that it is only equivalent to 22,000 tons or about 19,958 metric tons, and that was accomplished over a period of 18 years. SMC, on the other hand, is talking about removing 600,000 metric tons of waste every year.

PRRC, an agency attached to the DENR, has been trying to clean up the Pasig River since 1999. Last year, it was asking for a P261-million budget.

How much was actually spent by PRRC over almost two decades to remove about 20,000 metric tons of waste from the river? We are talking not only of the huge funds allocated by our government to the commission, but also any international aid and loans granted to the said office, including the $100 million loan from the Asian Development Bank for the river cleanup program.

During the launch of SMC’s Pasig River rehab program,  Ang said that while there have been many cleanup efforts in the past, and government has successfully implemented a number of programs these past few years, decades of pollution and compounding problems have rendered the river biologically dead since the 1990s. Such problems, he said, are too significant and complex to overcome, even for the best-intentioned advocates and organizations.

Among those present during the ceremony were DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu, MMDA chairman Benhur Abalos, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Mandaluyong Mayor Menchie Abalos, and representatives from the Department of Interior and Local Government, Department of Public Works and Highways, and the Philippine Coast Guard.

Ang cited a study published by OurWorldinData.org last May, which said that Pasig River has emerged as the top plastics polluter of oceans in the world. Joining Pasig River in the top 10 list of rivers in the world that have the highest share of plastics emitted are six other rivers in the Philippines, namely Tullahan River – which is number four, Meycauayan River (top five), Pampanga River (no. six), Libmanan River (no. 7), Rio Grande de Mindanao (no. 9), and Agno River (no. 10).

The SMC top executive said that solid waste in our rivers is a serious issue, not only because it endangers our oceans, marine life, and traditional fishing grounds which are a source of food and livelihood for our countrymen, but also because it worsens our flooding situation.

He said that silt and accumulated garbage have made the Pasig River shallow and restricts the flow of water, worsening the flooding situation in Manila, Mandaluyong, Makati and Pasig.

Ang said that their goal is to remove years-worth of wastes and increase Pasig River’s carrying capacity to divert floodwaters to Manila Bay and make it more conducive to marine life over the coming years.

He also pointed out that their experience in dredging Tullahan for a year has allowed SMC to determine the most effective approach and best equipment to use. In Tullahan, he said, they were able to extract over 260,000 metric tons of silt and solid waste, so far and the dredging has reduced the heavy flooding in Navotas, Malabon, and Valenzuela.

A depth survey has revealed that some parts of Pasig River have become shallower and measure only one to two meters in depth, while some parts will have to be widened. SMC is coordinating with the DPWH to draw up a dredging plan that will establish the target depth that will best handle heavy rainfall during extreme weather and minimize flooding.

Ang said that cleaning up the Pasig River bears historical significance for San Miguel. In 1890, La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel was established along the banks of Pasig River on Malacanang Street in the San Miguel district of Manila. The original site is now part of Malacanang Palace grounds.

I don’t know if it’s true, but they say that there was a pipeline from that fabrica that can deliver beer directly to the Palace.

The most iconic view of Malacanang Palace is no doubt the so-called Pasig River, with the palace’s façade as seen from the banks of the Pasig River. We could just imagine our long history of presidents and other dignitaries looking out from those windows and seeing how beautiful Pasig River was. The 23-kilometer Pasig River used to be an important transport route (it served the early interisland trade during the Spanish colonial period) and was a source of water for Spanish Manila, but due to negligence and industrial development, it became polluted and is now considered biologically dead by ecologists. It became a dumping ground for factory waste by-products and household sewage. Heavy metals from industrial waste resulted in extremely low amount of oxygen in the water, which is unhealthy for plants and animals.

No amount of waste extraction and dredging will bring the river back to life unless people and businesses stop dumping their wastes and do their share. Rehabilitating Pasig River will need extreme amounts of political will on the part of the DENR and the local government units. Is that too much to ask for? I hope not.



For comments, e-mail at mareyes@philstarmedia.com

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