Pasig River: Postcards from the future



THE Pasig River should be considered a national cultural heritage, as well as an important waterfront development with a highly efficient water transit system. Since the 16th century, the Pasig and its tributaries were the site of the settlements of those Filipinos of the Tagalog culture (Taga-ilog). It also facilitated the direct trade between the Tagalogs and the Kapampaangans in Pampanga (Pampang, meaning by the riverbanks).

In his book, Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society,William Henry Scott wrote that the ancient Filipinos traveled by boat not on wheels.

The river network systems and tributaries of the Pasig River are vast and expansive. Through the Pasig River, one can travel from Laguna Lake all the way out to Manila Bay, and even reach the innermost cities in the Pampanga River delta out in the Candaba wetlands.

In other cities of the world such as Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates, waterfronts are valued so highly that they are considered prime real estate. Water transport in such cities as Singapore, New York and Venice are an important mode of transportation.

In 1905, Daniel Burnham created the City Beautiful plan for Manila, in which he prioritized the pedestrian over the horse-drawn carriage, and the utilization of the waterways. The plan called for regaining the luster and use of the rivers and esteros of Manila. Burnham saw Venice, Paris and Naples in the Pasig River, Binondo Canal, Manila Bay, and the other waterways. Riverbanks, Burnham wrote, “will be created with shaded drives”.

The Pasig River alone, excluding the other connecting rivers, tributaries and esteros, is 27 kilometers long. It is seven times longer than the famed Grand Canals of Venice.

The decline of the river
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 of life by Pasig of old preserved in museums and galleries. Today, it is a grave reminder of the years of abuse of an environmental treasure.

In the past few years, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission has intensified its drive to clean up the river, and there are few successes such as the revival of the Estero de Paco. But generally, the revival of the river has proven to be challenging because of biological issues, and constant human abuse of the river. Those who live in the many informal settlements by the river, and because of a general lack of sewerage infrastrucuture, continually dump polluted or contaminated water in the Pasig.

Issues on informal settlers
Every river rehabilitation plan has proposed the resettlement of informal settlers, but every one of them are always confronted with the challenge of finding an appropriate relocation site for them, convincing the informal settlers to move and settle in the new area. Informal settlers move out of the resettlement areas because of inadequate services, and the distance to their place of work. What if, aside from relocating the informal settlers somewhere far, the surrounding areas of the site of their informal settlements were to be developed into a low- to medium-rise urban housing, taking into consideration the 10-meter easement from the river? In turn, these informal settlers would help in cleaning and rehabilitating the Pasig River, and in keeping watch.

Nearby manufacturing plants
Japan, China, and Malaysia have also suffered from polluted rivers, with manufacturing plants in the river areas being a major contributor to the mess. These plants directly dumped their chemical wastes and raw sewage onto the rivers. Japan and Singapore successfullyimplemented the relocation of these plants far from the rivers.

But relocating is not a simple matter. The local government units can set a deadline for the relocating of the plants, or they can allow the plants to stay but create stricter zoning regulations. The sewage water from these plants should be treated before returning it to the river.

Raw sewage in Pasig River
The conventional way of solving the issue of sewage pipes directly leading into the Pasig River is to open up the roads and fix the sewage networks. Prefabricated concrete slabs can also be used to make the construction faster, since road constructions in the Philippines take a very long time to complete. Another recommendation is to distribute water treatment plants along the river. The Pasig River flows through the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong, Makati, Pasig, and Taguig, yet the water treatment plants are concentrated within the center area of the river.

Postcards from the future
In 1997, Palafox Associates created a rehabilitation master plan for the Pasig River as a consultant to the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC). The rehabilitation of the Pasig River preserves our identity as a people and as a nation. The vision is to transform a “back-of-the-house” garbage dump into a “front door” of development by increasing tourism, alleviating poverty, providing an alternative transportation system while preserving the country’s natural resources.

To achieve this vision, Palafox Associates prepared a master plan with a three-fold approach and objectives:1) integrate and update the sectoral development plans of government and non-government agencies; 2) identify urban renewal areas for riverbank areas on both sides of the river; and 3) address the matter of environment protection areas, inclusive of a 10-meter setback.

The study area along the Pasig River is a 138-hectare span from the Guadalupe Bridge to the Makati-Mandaluyong Bridge. Terminals that integrate different modes of transport such as bicycles, buses and trains will be strategicallylocated in major centers near the river. Industrial and manufacturing plants fronting the river with expiring lease terms will be converted into mixed-use development as offices and residential and commercial sites. Parks, greens and open spaces will create a “breathing space,” a setting ideal for leisurely walks. An esplanade is also provided for in the plan.

Within the 15-year time frame, the river should have been pulsating with life, with a past that is very much a part of the present and a future that can only be described as promising.


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  1. I believe it is about time to talk to DENR again Sir and present your master plan since Mam Gina is now the Secretary. I know she’s been very keen about this Pasig River Rehab Program. Now being the Secretary, she will have more budget and teeth. At least we have a full 6 years to do more. President Duterte maybe talking shit to people who are shit anyway but the best part is that, he get’s the job done and that’s what all that matters.

  2. Dear Mr.Palafox,
    The traffic problem has been very costly to our daily life. And I have a proposal which our traffic management has not experimented which has worked in other countries. If we can meet and further discuss our proposal. The main item is to solve EDSA and C5 which are the two main highway for both south/north bound. My proposal is to make
    this two highway one way system. Edsa for southbound and C5 for northbound. As the system will insure the follow of traffic( the left lane will be for private motorist which will be free following while the right lane for public transport together with truck delivery). The same will be for C5 going north bound.
    A system will be design for the turn around of the public transport by using MOA/Magallanes. The same for C5 toward Katipunan.
    Hoping we can discuss further and make a system that will be able to help solve the congestions.

    Thank you,
    John Arceo

  3. You are just good in planning and not on implementation.
    Its been years and years and now you are talking?
    Why did you not do anything? Why did we end up like this?