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Opinion

Rivers

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

One of my most memorable encounters with academics happened in the late 1960s in New York when the New York University Professor Frank Traeger, a Southeast Asian specialist, introduced me to Karl A. Wittfogel. I had just read his “Oriental Despotism,” a study on Asian agrarian societies. It is an impressive achievement; I was then doing a lot of reading on agrarian problems and peasant rebellions. He had applied Marxist analysis on his study and had come up with so many insights on how agrarian societies were dominated by despots and how these rulers and their power and longevity are at the same time determined by their use of water. These societies, which Professor Wittfogel called “hydraulic,” are different from western societies that developed in the industrial revolution.

This venerable scholar, then in his 80s, also asked me about the peasant Huk rebellion, its causes and its possible effect on Philippine political development.

Professor Wittfogel broadened my interest; I was now concerned with water as a resource. I got interested in the river systems as I knew them then. In those days, before jets, propellered airplanes did not fly too high, from that height one can observe the land as it unfurled below, the rivers wide, glittering ribbons in the sunlight.

I bring to mind the mighty rivers, first in our part of the world – the Mekong which rushes down the Himalayas across several countries and by the thousands who live in it, the Yangtze in China and in the United States, the Mississippi – there is so much romantic lore entwined with them, as Mark Twain and William Faulkner country, and that song Ole Man River. These are huge bodies of water – seas almost.

I was in Brazil in 1960 to witness the inauguration of Brazil’s new capital, Brazilia, and I stopped for a couple of days in Manaus where I went fishing in the Amazon and caught a giant catfish. From the air, the Amazon is not one single swath but several rivers spread across the continent. My host confirmed the dreadful stories about the Amazon’s killer fish, the Piranha, but these stories were exaggerations.

In Russia, the Volga is like the Mississippi, wide like the sea. It was at the Volga that I saw my first sturgeon, a big fish whose eggs are known as caviar.

What surprised me most, however, about these great rivers is the Jordan in Israel, which is so crucial to that country which knows how to conserve and use water in the best way. It was so narrow in some places one can simply jump across it. Since eons ago, rivers are arteries of commerce and communication, and many cities developed along them.

Chao Phraya in Bangkok, the Han in Seoul. When I saw the Han in the 1960s shortly after the Korean war it had only one twisted bridge; today it is spanned by thirty.

There’s the Thames in London, and in Europe, the most popular of them, the Seine in Paris, the Rhine waterway and the beautiful Danube. And of course, our own dying, polluted Pasig, which will now have a parallel elevated expressway.

When I first came to Manila in 1938, I used to swim in it after my high school classes in the afternoons. It had only three bridges then – Ayala, Santa Cruz, and Jones. The interisland boats docked near the Jones Bridge together with the presidential yacht, Icasiana. I finally saw the sea, the Pasig emptying into it. And on a personal note – I have crossed a lot of bridges – and some, if I may continue with metaphors, I have burned.

Like Manhattan, which is bracketed by two rivers, my hometown is also wedged in by two creeks. As a boy, I had swam in both and traced where the two joined to form one river that joined the Agno. The water in the Agno, coming as it does from the Cordilleras, is much cooler. I used to gather old pine splinters buried in its bottom and used them for kindling fire. In the 1930s, an earthen dike on both banks of the Agno was built to contain its overflow. When the dikes are breached, Western Pangasinan becomes a light brown sea.

All over the world, dams have been built to hold water and provide power and irrigation. Some are megalithic structures that took years to construct. Violent conflicts have resulted from these constructions – the damming of the Mekong up in China, of the Nile which cuts across Africa. On a smaller scale, similar conflicts, often violent, erupt when a landlord or rich farmer denies irrigation water to others. It may interest our people to know that one of the most viable arrangements to equitably distribute water has been in existence in the Ilocos region since the Spanish regime.

It is heartwarming to know, too, and to see that Manila Bay is being cleaned and very soon, the Pasig, too, which may be more difficult and will take longer because the esteros which empty into the Pasig must be cleaned, too. This is how the land – and the body, too, is made alive.

I witnessed the building of the earthen Ambuklao Dam in the Cordilleras; the inundation and disappearance of villages and soon, as more dams were built, the violent opposition of people who will lose their ancestral land.

Water, which is all around us since our birth, is so ordinary. We hardly think of it until there is a flood or a shortage. As scientists probe the galaxies, they eagerly look for traces of water; it means life. So, for once, as you hold up that glass, think of what it symbolizes, its implications, how as liquid, it is powerless, until it becomes a raging flood, a tsunami. Think of it as the deluge for which Noah built his ark. It is God’s precious gift, holy as life itself, precious as blood, as freedom.

And to paraphrase Judge Learned Hand, “It lives only in the heart, and if it dies there, no court of law or constitution can ever bring it back to life.”

RIVER
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