THE Pasig River, a hundred years ago, was the main transport system of everyone who lived in ancient Manila. In the morning, fresh fruits, fish, and pots were sold by merchants along the river banks. In the evening, lanterns of short wooden boats must have illuminated its waters. The colors and life of the Pasig River are now kept alive only in old paintings, pictures, and literature.
In the battle of Manila in 1571, arms were ferried through the Pasig River coming from the nearby provinces. In the 19th century, the officers in Fort Santiago had also used the river as escape routes. The Tagalogs or “river dwellers” especially made use of the water transport. Through the river, life and culture flourished.
In 1905, Daniel Burnham created a plan for Manila that prioritized pedestrians over then horse-dragged carriages. The plan also called for regaining the luster and usage of the rivers and esteros of Manila. Burnham saw Venice, Paris, and Naples in Pasig River, Binondo canal, Manila Bay, and the other waterways. He envisioned them as major transport systems. Riverbanks, Burnham wrote in his report, will be created with shaded drives.
With 23 kilometers in length, Pasig River extends all the way to Laguna and Cavite. It had access to Rizal province as well. Imagine, those living as far as Laguna and Cavite, can reach the tip of Bataan and the island of Corregidor through the Pasig River and Manila Bay.
Decline of the rivers
After centuries of usage, the Pasig River was considered to be biologically dead in the 20th century and in the early millennium. Gone are the ala Venetian canals of Manila, a major mode of transport, and the main identity of the Tagalog culture.
Factories, houses and other developments treat the waterfront as the “back of the house,” dumping toxic wastes in the river and eventually killing marine life. The river is nowhere close to the paintings and pictures preserved in museums and galleries. Today, it is a grave reminder of the years of abuse on an environmental treasure.
In other parts of the world, countries fight for the right to use coastlines and extend shorelines. Dubai created the Palm Islands to have more waterfronts. In contrast, our country has squandered it due to poor implementation of environmental laws and lack of infrastructure.
Singapore, South Korea, and New York all utilize their rivers as one of the main modes of transportation. There is also the primary concern of keeping waterways clean and maintain them as such.
In South Korea, they even went as far as to remove a 10-kilometer major highway in downtown Seoul to revive the Cheonggyecheon stream. It opened in 2005, and since then it has become a national inspiration and grand tourist attraction. It has also sparked urban and economic revitalization in the old districts of Seoul.
Reviving the River and its esteros
After billions of pesos and much effort for better environmental measures, the Pasig River regained some of its life. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) started to revive the ferry transport. Barges consistently traverse the river. The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), NGOs, private sector, and local government units (LGUs) have also been initiating clean-up efforts and providing better shelters to the informal settlers living along Pasig River and the esteros.
While the Pasig River is relatively doing better than in the previous years, many structures still stand along the river and esteros today. There are already laws in place regarding development of easements. Palafox Associates has previously worked with the PRRC for the master plan of the Pasig River Rehabilitation. We have worked with the City of San Juan for the review and update of their Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP). We also assisted the beneficiaries of the Urban Poor Associates (UPA) in the design of their homes along Estero de San Miguel. In all of these projects, we highlighted the importance of a 10-meter easement from the river or esteros. In order to revive these waterways, the LGUs must strictly implement the easements and no-build zones.
When will we change?
Our country is blessed with having one of the longest coastlines in the world. Sadly, it is a blessing that we continually take for granted. Abroad, grand rivers like the Seine, Thames, Hudson, and Danube also went through what Pasig River is going through—years of indifference and abuse brought about by industrialization and so-called progress. Yet, countries that once abused their rivers have come full circle and resuscitated their precious waterways. There is hope!
The Manila Bay, Pasig River, and Laguna Lake can also be interconnected through water transport and walkable, bikeable waterfront promenades. Having tree-lined pedestrian paths and bike lanes along the river banks and esteros could also provide comfort and places of contemplation for pedestrians. Once fully redeveloped, they will enhance, expand, and encourage a change in lifestyle, conserve marine life, ease land-based traffic congestion, and most importantly, bring forth the appreciation of long neglected assets.