Gina Lopez, founder of the Kapit Bisig para sa Ilog Pasig (KBPIP) and chair of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, has been feeling pretty confident about the Pasig River’s future. Under President Benigno Aquino, P10 billion a year was forked out to clean the river. A ferry service started running in 2014. A few thousand squatter families that lived along the river’s banks and tributaries, or esteros, were relocated, and 17 of the 47 esteros are now rejuvenated, or so the KBPIP claims.
For Lopez, the Pasig River has become a personal crusade. She is now heading the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and she shows no signs of relenting.
So, can we now feel optimistic, even just a little, about our city’s badly abused beautiful river?
The 25-kilometer long Pasig River churns past five cities and four municipalities. It connects Manila Bay in the west and Laguna de Bay, the country’s largest freshwater lake, in the east. In the early 1970s, Mrs. Imelda Marcos, then First Lady and Governor of Metro Manila, had big dreams for the river. She imagined floating casinos and gondola rides on the Pasig. She had the river walls painted and a few trees planted, which of course, did nothing to solve the pollution problem.
A few other short-lived hare-brained schemes were tried and failed until the Ramos administration got behind a Pasig River Rehabilitation Program. By this time, however, the river had become an environmental catastrophe.
In the 1990s, over 4 million people were living in the Pasig River catchment area and only a fraction was connected to a sewerage system. Thousands of squatters who lived in ramshackle settlements along the riverbanks simply evacuated their domestic waste straight into the river. Local government units had done little to enforce land use and zoning regulations, allowing over 2000 factories to set up upstream and spew out their industrial effluent directly into the river. The Metropolitan Water Works and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), the overburdened and underfunded government agencies responsible for sewage management and rubbish collection, could do little to stop the dumping. The flooding issue was relieved somewhat by declogging antiquated drains and renovation of the river walls, but the scale of the problem was enormous. The river was a toxic stew and biologically dead.
Manileños have romanticized the Pasig River for generations. They imagine an idyllic time when they could enjoy fishing, boating and swimming in the river. Paintings and old photos depict these seemingly halcyon times. Studies have shown that the Pasig River once supported 25 species of fish and many types of aquatic plants. But one would need to think very far back into the past to reach the river’s happy period. People already thought the Pasig was disgusting two centuries ago.
Anacleto del Rosario (1860-1895) was interested in cholera. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the Ateneo de Manila before going on to train at the Universidad de Santo Tomas where he was awarded his licenciado in pharmacy and medicine, the degree that enabled him to practice in 1882 at the age of 22. He then worked for the Municipal Laboratory of Manila, which was established in 1888.
He undertook bacteriological examinations of the stools of cholera victims, though was unsuccessful at isolating a pure culture of cholera vibrio. His research on the Pasig River, first published in a journal in 1885, and as a book a year later, was entitled Los Olores del Pasig (The Odours of the Pasig). It was the first major study of water pollution undertaken in the Philippines.
In the late 19th century, the Pasig River was considered pestilential. Clean, potable water was not piped from the Marikina River to the city’s residents until the Carriedo Waterworks was completed in 1882. The poor had little choice but to rely upon the Pasig’s fetid waters. Yet, although its miasmatic or foul air emanations were well known, nobody fully understood why it made people sick and why it smelled so awful.
The state of the river was of long standing concern for the colonial authorities for reasons other than health. Choked with vegetation, the river had become an inefficient waterway. Commercial boats traveling along the Pasig inland to Laguna de Bay were moving too slowly. Apparently motivated more by the need to safeguard profit and less by an interest in health and sanitation, the Governor General at the time, in co-operation with a commercial association, took the first bureaucratic steps toward cleaning the river between 1852 and 1853. In 1860, the city’s superintendent of sanitation sprung into action. He called for a section of the river to be cleaned immediately, for it had become so clogged with filth that it was virtually impassable for the delivery boats that plied its length.
But two major cholera epidemics later, hygiene and sanitation became an urgent priority. During the brief hiatus that occurred between the 1882 and 1888 epidemics, del Rosario, the young and gifted Filipino professor of chemistry, was appointed to analyze the waters of Pasig.
His study sought to “determine the chemical factors causing the [river’s] unhealthy emanations.” He undertook it, he wrote, “in the name of science and the hygiene of the Filipino pueblo.” His thinking, he stated, had been most influenced by Louis Pasteur. Del Rosario attributed the cause of “fetid gases” and reduced water clarity to the overgrowth of protoccocus, uni-celled algae, its decomposition and detritus. His book also presented a detailed examination of the physical characteristics of the microorganisms present in the water, which included descriptions of numerous types of bacterium, vibrion (such as the parasite vibrio serpentulum), and fever-inducing spirillum.
Del Rosario recommended dredging the river. His instruction was never implemented, and American scientists ignored his work when they dealt with cholera again at the turn of the century.
The death of the Pasig River is a reflection of our collective stupidity and criminal neglect. Yet, like some legend or ancient prophecy, we fervently hope that when the river is resurrected, the city and our souls will be similarly redeemed and cleansed.