River rehab
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 3, 2019 - 12:00am

GLASGOW – From my hotel room in this Scottish city, I have a splendid view of the Clyde Arc Bridge spanning the River Clyde.

The water is impressively clean, with greenery lining the banks. I’ve been told that there are ducks and swans in some areas of the river. Salmon has been spotted in recent years, after barriers were removed along some 100 kilometers of the 176-km river to allow the entry of migratory fish.

Like many of the rivers in Europe, however, the Clyde had to be revived from near-death from pollution and heavy siltation.

The river had contributed to the economic growth of the city. Locals say that “Glasgow made the Clyde, and the Clyde made Glasgow.”

This city was once a center for shipping and industrialization, with all the pollution that these engendered. Photos show Glasgow during that era, with smoke and soot wafting from factories. When the rains came, the pollution went back to the land and the river, turning much of the landscape grimy. Sewage and factory effluent were discharged untreated into the river. The heavily silted river was dredged regularly to allow bigger commercial ships including those from other countries to enter, transporting the city’s top trading commodities, tobacco and sugar. Dikes and canals were built to make the river deeper. 

The large ships were a boon to the local economy but aggravated the pollution. Because of the importance of the river to the industrialized capability of Scotland, Glasgow was also targeted for heavy bombardment during the First and Second World Wars.

Until the 1960s, the riverfront still housed polluting factories, coal-fired power plants, railway stations and tenements with poor sanitation. 

Like other advanced economies in post-industrialization Europe, however, Glasgow residents sick of the pollution decided to do something about the river waste and stench.

This year, Glasgow was picked as Scotland’s third greenest city after the capital Edinburgh and Aberdeen (cleanest air), by commercial waste and recycling service First Mile. Glasgow was cited particularly for the zeal of its residents in eschewing single-use plastics.

For someone like me, whose office is just a stone’s throw from polluted Pasig River, the Clyde is a dream.

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In the past two decades, the Pasig itself has undergone an effective cleanup. Last October, the Pasig rehabilitation program won the first Asia RiverPrize Award, beating China’s Yangtze. The award, given by the International River Foundation, was conferred during ceremonies held in Sydney, Australia. 

The award qualifies the Pasig to compete for State 2 of the Thiess International RiverPrize this year. It might lose. In recent weeks, driving to the Cignal TV / One News studio in Mandaluyong for my co-hosting of “The Chiefs” show, I have been dismayed by the sight of garbage and uncollected water lilies in the river near Guadalupe bridge in Makati.

It’s a disappointing backsliding. The sight of this stretch of the river has always delighted me. Until some weeks ago, people were fishing along the riverbanks and children were diving and swimming, although I doubt if the water is clean enough for that. The river rehabilitation has been such a success that I’ve been urging friends to try the pleasant riverboat ride from the westernmost station in Intramuros, Manila to the opposite end in Marikina.

Now the pollution is back, possibly due to the start of the construction of the Santa Monica-Lawton Bridge – Phase One of the BGC-Ortigas Link Road Project. There are always barges around the area, which could be aggravating the pollution. Several other bridges are being built across the Pasig, and it will take years to complete them. Will the river return to its heavily polluted condition during that period?

Incoming Manila Mayor Isko Moreno told The Chiefs in a recent interview that he would clear the city’s riverbanks of informal settlements and develop green riverfront enclaves in selected areas, including the former oil depot in Pandacan.

River rehabilitation, however, must be undertaken together by all the local government units in Metro Manila, including those with no areas facing the river but with creeks and canals or esteros that wash into the Pasig.

Everyone must be on board in any river rehabilitation, and the effort must be sustained.

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Even the River Clyde is not clean enough for Glasgow residents. The Scotland Environment Protection Agency says Clyde’s water quality has improved from “bad” to “moderate,” although a few spots can be described as “excellent.”

Scotland, after all, was voted this year by readers of the influential travel guide Rough Guide as the most beautiful country in the world, beating Canada, New Zealand and Italy. An environmental charity called Keep Scotland Beautiful launched last March the “Upstream Battle” to rid the River Clyde of litter. This followed last year’s anti-plastic trash cleanup campaign.

Upstream Battle is part of the continuing development of the riverside as an area for recreation, business and sustainable living.

River rehabilitation, as we know, can be costly. Scotland has earmarked 600 million pounds sterling (about P40 billion) from 2010 to 2021 for wastewater treatment and sewerage systems alone along the Clyde. Additional funds are spent for the periodic litter cleanup.

The Philippines may have to do it in Pasig and other major urban waterways on a tighter budget. But the success of the Pasig rehabilitation has shown that reviving a heavily polluted river is possible.

As long as the campaign is sustained, as Glasgow is doing, it can be done.

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