The once thriving urban waterfront of the Pasig River



Water courses, since time immemorial, have been one of the most efficient transport systems in the world. Filipinos have always found inspiration at waterfront settings, lovingly represented in the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo, with its characters painted in repose by the clear, lush, and bubbly waters of the Pasig riverbank, while in Jose Rizal’s poem “By the Banks of the Pasig River,” Rizal woos a girl with a romantic boat ride to Antipolo. The once pristine waters of the Pasig River teemed with life, above and within its waters. Mangroves called “nilad” and bamboo plants used to grow abundantly by its banks—Pasig River was never still, as bancas, cascos, and steam boats cruised by and residents took quick afternoon dips to cool off from the tropical heat.

But at the turn of the century, the water courses in Manila declined from their glorious state. The bombing of the city in 1945 by the Japanese destroyed a large part of the north banks and left much of the city completely destroyed. When the city redeveloped its riverbanks, the banks that used to be a source of recreation became a depository for the city’s industrial waste. They deteriorated, caused by man’s irresponsible use, treating them as “back of the house” encouraging squatting or informal settlements along the banks.

Trade and transport hub
When civilization started along the banks of Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the very first means of transport dating back to ancient times were water courses. The city of Manila would never have evolved into a profitable trading center had it not been for Pasig River. In the first ever coffee table book on the Pasig river, Pasig: River of Life by Reynaldo Alejandro and Alfred Yuson, the Pasig River was a strategic point for intra-island transport via its esteros and tributaries, as well as the maritime inter-island trade routes through Manila Bay, the China Sea, and out through Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao. The esteros of Pasig provided a link with the provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga (via Estero de Binondo and Estero de Vitas), and with Las Piñas and Parañaque (via Estero de Galina), Marikina and Montalban could be reached by way of San Mateo or the Marikina River, while Pateros and Taguig were linked to the Pasig through its Pateros River-Taguig River tributaries. Through the Pariancillio River (also called Bitukang Manok River), Pasig River linked up with Cainta and Antipolo. Through the Napindan channel, the Pasig River via the Bambang River found its source—the Laguna de Bai, which further allowed river traffic to push onto various port towns of Laguna such as Calamba, Los Baños, Bae, Pila, Sta. Cruz, Jala-Jala, Binangonan, and others.

The Pasig River provided the needed transportation between the east-west corridors. Before the automobile dominated the city highways, the Pasig River stood as the city’s first highway, connecting the city with the suburbs. By reviving this once bustling corridor, it would complement the north-south transport corridor created by EDSA, providing a faster transport alternative we have been used to on land. Metro Manila once had diversified modes for urban transportation. By augmenting the transport system, it will help decongest traffic, speed up travel time, lessen delays, and offer commuters a sensory experience and reminder of the existence of the natural world that breathes life and vitality into the urban world.

Reviving the waterfront
All over the world, countries that once abused their rivers have come full circle and resuscitated their precious waterways. It is often taken for granted that 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. The process of rehabilitation each went through, however, is a long and complex one requiring the highest kind of commitment. Environmental and urban regeneration goals must be set side by side, for one is ineffectual without the other.

Waterfront development can link history and architecture. With community participation, resuscitation of “dying” water bodies can be realized with waterfront developments that can make it more economically and visually appealing to the residents. The Philippines has many rivers and lakes that need to be protected from degradation and pollution. Waterfront development can help preserve and conserve these natural assets that are imperiled for depletion if abuse of these water bodies continues.

By relocating the informal settlers onsite or near the site through socialized housing developments, the Pasig River can once more reclaim the once wide riverbanks and watercourses. We can once more appreciate the spatial expanse of the river and create bustling, lush and inviting promenades, parks, and areas for socializing with al fresco dining, cafes and riverside restaurants. Once fully redeveloped, they will enhance, expand, and encourage a change in lifestyle, conserve marine life, and most importantly, bring forth the appreciation of a long neglected asset.

On January 6, 1999, Executive Order 54 was passed, creating the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission which is tasked with the “responsibilities for the effective rehabilitation and development of the Pasig River to its historically pristine condition conducive to transport, recreation, and tourism.” The Commission is mandated to plan, monitor, coordinate, and implement functions and activities within the Pasig River System. One of the tasks of the PRRC is to draw up an updated and integrated Pasig River Rehabilitation Master Plan which was put together by Palafox Associates.

The Master Plan proposed anchoring multi-purpose developments along the Pasig River to act as catalysts for renewal. Guidelines were set to ensure land-use continuity linking immediate waterfront developments with adjacent in-land uses. The river is envisioned to stitch the historical, cultural, and commercial districts via a vibrant corridor that is defined by appropriate architectural styles, massing, scale and density, and enriched by valued heritage structures and opportunities for adaptive reuse.

The Pasig River Rehabilitation continues to be a challenging project for those who continue to battle for its revival. The success of the urban waterfront development plan is not led with just by political and business leaders, but by a host of concerned citizens who believe in the value of civic involvement and the importance of the Pasig River to our history and culture. Cities regenerate from within. It is time to revive the Pasig River back into the consciousness of the Filipino people.


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  1. I would commend Mr Palafox for writing the enumerable benefits & advantages for
    our country to gain in the rehabilitation of the dysfunctional & dirty Pasig river. I used to observe this even during my students days at FEATI U. I even alluded last year to A Phil official about to work pro-bono in its rehab & the flood control of Metro Manila, being a PE & SE in USA for 40 years (CE in Phil also). If we as a nation has the will to restore this natural treasure, tourists all over the world will flock to Manila better than going to glide in the canals of Venice, Hudson; San Antonio, Texas; or Danube. In addition, the economic impact will be immeasurable, although a big investment is needed but the return outweighs it. Let us not put this treasure to waste.

  2. If you ever drive the Interstate 5 highway on the Central valley of California, this is the bread basket of the United States, there are signs like this ” Food grows where water flows”. In the desert countries in the middle east, they have estuaries of salt water going to big desalinization plant to be converted over to fresh water. The experts are predicting that the next most valuable fluid after oil is going to be water. A bottled water is more expensive than a can of soda. Our country is blessed with the abundance of fresh water, but because of ignorance, greed, mismanagement and the lack of vision and the will to manage our most important resource, our leaders are neglecting and not doing their job in preserving our water source. I hope we wake up to this reality that if we keep our lakes, rivers and springs clean it can be a source of wealth. God bless the Philippines.

  3. I am very delighted by the enumerable advantages mentioned by Mr. Palafax, in rehabilitating the dysfunctional Pasig River, I used to see everyday during my college days at FEATI U. I even alluded last year to a Phil Official that I may volunteer pro-bono my expertise being a licensed P.E. & S.E. in USA for 40 years (also a CE in the Phil) in its rehabilitation and the flood control of Metro Manila. It is about time we do something to this very precious & beautiful river, better than the canals of Venice, Hudson river, San Antonio Texas, etc. where foreign tourists will be attracted to enjoy, including our people. It is terrible to put this valuable treasure to waste.