President Duterte, voicing exasperation over the impossibly polluted condition of the Pasig River, announced last Tuesday that he was removing the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and transferring all its functions and responsibilities to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The river can no longer be cleaned up because there is no zoning, he said. Over the years, the wastes of so many factories and households have been thrown into the river which flows into Manila Bay where its wastes join those of 17 other rivers that end up in the bay.
And yet the Pasig River is such a historic and beautiful part of Manila and the many towns upstream. It is so valued a spot in our history, in fact, that it was made the site of Malacanang, the home of Philippine presidents.
The deterioration of the river goes back many decades. It is said fish began to disappear from the river in the 1930s and by the 1970s, it had begun to give off a smell. All swimming and travelling by boat had stopped by the 1980s. It was declared biologically dead in the 1990s.
The principal reason was that after World War II, shanty towns of people coming from the provinces sprang up all along the river. They and the factories and piggeries and markets that arose all along the river and its many tributaries simply disposed of their wastes into the river That practice, it may be noted, continues to this day; only recently, so many dead pigs, victims of Asian swine fever, were found floating on the Marikina River on its way to the Pasig.
During the administration of President Fidel V. Ramos in the 1990s, some 700,000 people were relocated from squatter areas to various towns in Bulacan, Laguna, Rizal, Cavite, and Batangas, but most of them returned to other shanty towns along the Pasig to be close to their places of work in Metro Manila.
This is the Pasig River and Manila Bay which President Duterte now wants to clean up, after the government’s success in the six-month rehabilitation of Boracay island. But the problem in Metro Manila is a hundred times bigger, that Secretary Roy Cimatu of the DENR said it will take more than ten years to stop all the garbage and the pollution pouring into the bay from the Pasig and the many other rivers in Bataan, Pampanga, Bulacan, Metro Manila, Laguna, and Cavite.
President Joseph Estrada, who succeeded President Ramos in 1998, created the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission in 1998 with the singular job of cleaning up the Pasig. It has evidently failed in this task after all these years. The Pasig is as dirty as ever. There was a plan led by then Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno to set up a ferry service with so many stops along the Pasig, but nothing has come of it, probably because, with the pollution and the smell of the river, many commuters would rather take the buses, jeepneys, and light rails in Metro Manila’s traffic-jammed streets.
But President Duterte appears determined to do something about the Pasig problem, especially since he lives right along its banks in Malacanang. He said last Tuesday, “Me, I am just near the Pasig River. Sometimes I take a bath there if I want bacteria in my body to help me become immune.”
He was joking of course, but we hope, as in the case of so many other previous jokes, he means to really do something about the dirty, smelly, polluted Pasig River.