Pasig River used to be described as idyllic. For centuries, the waterway that snakes 25 kilometers from Laguna Lake to Manila Bay was clean enough to bathe in and draw drinking water from. The Pasig was celebrated in song and poem, and was an endearing subject of painters.
In the 1950s, President Ramon Magsaysay was photographed swimming in its waters.
We doubt if the present occupant of Malacañang is brave enough to take a dip in the Pasig today. We imagine it would be a totally unpleasant experience for him.
The once beloved river has all but lost its pristine quality, and with it its quaint charm. Pollution has taken over, and while there are heroic efforts to stem the toxic tide, Pasig has been scarred for life.
Pollution in the Pasig is not a recent phenomenon. It was apparent as early as the 1930s, when urbanization was transforming communities along its banks. But nobody cared much then.
Factories that sprouted along the river made it their personal waste disposal site. At the same time, the tributaries that emptied into the Pasig added residential refuse to the noxious mix.
By the 1980s, the fish had vanished. Pasig River was declared biologically dead. The authorities decided something had to be done.
There have been numerous efforts to revive the Pasig, but the results have not been as heartening as expected, perhaps because government resources and enthusiasm often ran short. It is not surprising therefore that the most successful attempt so far to revive the Pasig was spearheaded by a private corporation, ABS-CBN.
Working closely with the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, the giant broadcast network focused on the Estero de Paco, one of the close to 20 canals flowing into the Pasig. ABS-CBN raised money to dredge the tributary and relocate the squatter families that lived along it to Laguna, where they were provided with low-cost housing and livelihood training.
Today, Estero de Paco is a showcase of how a partnership between a nongovernment organization and the government can make a big difference.
Replicating the success of Estero de Paco is the bigger challenge ahead. Gina Lopez, the chairman of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, admits that unless all the esteros are cleaned up, efforts to rehabilitate the river will be futile.
Making the Pasig clean and alive again is only part of the rehabilitation picture. The river’s potential as an alternative transportation artery is being tapped by Metro Manila authorities.
A new river ferry service is being tried out by the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to attract commuters who want to escape the heat, dust and traffic in the streets.
Previous Pasig ferry operators failed to attract enough riders to stay financially afloat. The last one had boats that could seat 150 passengers, were air-conditioned and had video on board. But the boats proved to be too big for such a small market. Towards the end, the operator disregarded departure and arrival schedules and waited for enough passengers to board.
There were also times when a boat would bypass a terminal because there were no waiting passengers.
The new ferry service has smaller boats with no air-conditioning. There are also fewer terminals. The MMDA also has not decided how much to charge each passenger.
Still and all, Pasig is an ideal transportation system. If the new ferry catches on, it will be a big step towards bringing the river back to life.