MANILA, December 9, 2003  (STAR) By Ching M. Alano - Her impeccable charm never failed to inspire. Many a dreamy-eyed and tongue-tied poet, musician and writer was moved to sing paeans to her.

Once there was a muse named Pasig.

National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin wrote in his book Manila, My Manila, "Manila took a long time to make. What is now its ground used to be sea. The sea reached as far as the present towns of Mandaluyong (‘a place of waves’) and Makati (‘a place of tides’). No one knows how long it took to turn sea into land. But we do know who built a site for Manila. The builder was the Pasig River."

A river of lore and legend, Pasig River is a 10-mile course that runs from the salt waters of Manila Bay to Laguna de Bai (meaning princess or lady), one of the world’s largest fresh water inland lakes with its own islands and tributaries.

(The present Pasig is all of 23 kilometers, flowing from the north side of Laguna de Bai and westward into Manila Bay.)

Pasig throbbed with life. Along its banks (Pasig comes from the words "sand banks") lived people who called themselves Tagalog (taga ilog). Two of its most important settlements were Namayan (near today’s Sta. Ana) and Maynila. The delta of the Pasig was almost entirely occupied by the city of Manila. On these delta isles first settled folks who came in big rowboats called barangay in the 10th century.

Life along the Pasig was easy and breezy. Here, residents went bathing, boating, swimming, fishing. Why, they could simply lower their lines or fishnets from their windows into the river and have fresh fish on their table every day!

The river bustled with activity. Paraws plied the fabled waterway, ferrying drinking water, food and assorted goods to markets and warehouses.

And believe it or not, the water was so clear you could see what lay at the bottom of the river. As far as your eyes could see, everything was sparkling blue and lush green. Let’s take a look around and see.

There was Binondo, a bustling commercial hub, where you’d find a shopping haven called Escolta. Then there was Sta. Cruz, where people went to worship at its historic church. Not far away was Quiapo (from the word cuyapo or water cabbage which was plentiful in the area), known for its Black Nazarene as well as gold, silversmiths and sculptors. On the other hand, Santa Mesa teemed with ilang-ilang trees and a different breed of Sunday worshippers who filled its hippodrome to the rafters. Sampaloc, the home of laundrymen, was no wishy-washy town either.

And of course, there was San Miguel on the northern bank of the river, where lived rich, aristocrat families. (It also became the site of Malacañang Palace, official residence of past Spanish and American governor generals and Filipino presidents. To this day, it seems a lot of people will do everything to hold office in that palace by the Pasig, despite its assorted ghosts from the past and the river’s pollution – but more on that later.)

The prince of Filipino poets Francisco Balagtas wrote Florante at Laura in Pandacan, a place which nurtured his soul and spirit.

Sta. Ana was home away from home for expats who enjoyed its cooler climate and grew their own gardens there.

Paco was alive and roaring with its circular stone cemetery and bullfight arena.

On the other hand, the genteel neighborhood of Ermita and Malate was home to upper-crust society.

The first bridge to span the river was constructed in 1631. Puente de España (Bridge of Spain) was a classic stone bridge lined with gas lamps on the sides. Its beauty was a favorite subject of photographers and artists until it was destroyed during the earthquake of 1863 and became but a sweet memory. Later, it was replaced by the Jones Bridge and the rest, as they say, is current history. In the 1930s, the Puente de Colgante gave way to the Quezon (Quiapo) Bridge, one of the earliest metal suspension bridges in the world and, unknown to many, was designed by the company of Gustav Eiffel, who built the world-famous Eiffel Tower of Paris.

Alas, the river began to die in the 1930s. Today, it’s all but gasping for breath. What has happened to the Pasig River? Who did this to our beloved muse?

Untreated wastes, dumped by factories and commercial/industrial firms which thrived along the riverbanks, accumulated through the decades. Also, there was the growing number of people living by the Pasig, adding to the pollution problem.

Just how polluted is the Pasig? Smell, er, hear this: The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Royal Danish government, estimates that the Pasig’s daily pollution load is 327 metric tons per day in terms of BOD or biochemical oxygen demand. (BOD is a standard measure of water quality – the greater the oxygen demand, the more polluted the water.) The main sources of pollution include individual liquid waste (45 percent), domestic liquid waste (45 percent), solid waste (10 percent). Experts say that Pasig River’s BOD exceeds the standard for a Class C body of water by 127 mtpd (a body of water must be kept at 200 BOD level or lower to sustain aquatic life).

By the 1990s, the Pasig River was pronounced biologically dead and a carrier of disease. Its waters have become murky and smelly.

Today, there have been efforts from both private and government sectors to revive the dying Pasig. The Pasig River Rehabilitation Program was launched in 1993 to bring back the glory that was the Pasig River in 15 years through 21 water and riverbank projects at the cost of P15 billion. The Presidential Task Force, chaired by then First Lady Ming Ramos, reported that solid wastes were reduced by half while individual liquid wastes by 35 percent. However, they admitted that domestic liquid wastes, accounting for 60 percent of the river pollution load, were not addressed – and so much more remains to be done.

Enter the Clean & Green Foundation, Inc., Piso Para Sa Pasig, Sagip Pasig Movement, Riverwatch, etc. In 1999, the government formalized its support for the river revival efforts by putting up the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), composed of 12 government agencies and three private sector groups. The PRRC sought the help of urban planner Palafox Associates to draw up a master plan that, by year 2015 (or hopefully, within our lifetime) could make Pasig a revitalized waterway, suitable for both aquatic life and water-based activities. (Or good enough for one to swim across it – didn’t a government minister of Singapore swim across the once polluted Singapore River, if only to prove that it’s now safe for both fish and humans?)

Palafox has proposed subdividing the Pasig into four general areas:

• Heritage Zone: To include the principal historic and heritage sites, from the mouth of the river to Mabini-Nagtahan Bridge, with the country’s grandest structures and cherished sites – Intramuros, Rizal Park, Malacañang and the San Miguel District, Quiapo and downtown Manila.

• Transition Zone: To include Sta. Ana and Pandacan districts, from Nagtahan to Lambingan Bridge, punctuated by industrial areas like the oil depots and factories.

• Central Business District Zone: To include Lambingan to Carlos P. Garcia-C5 Bridge, to supplement the Makati, Mandaluyong and Pasig Central Business Districts. This zone is intended as the main transit hub of the Pasig River, where main modes of transport converge to support high-level land use.

• Agro-Tourism Zone: To include the Old Rizal Capitol Complex up to Taguig, Pateros, Taytay and Laguna de Bai.

The Riverbanks Physical Development Plan envisions the implementation of a 10-meter easement to pave the way for the execution of its projects. The plan has identified vacant lots and blighted areas which, when cleared, are prime sites for urban renewal projects.

Here’s more: There will be 10 parks along the 27-km stretch of the Pasig, four more bridges, a ferry system and parallel modes of transportation.

Last year, we received a different, nay, refreshing, kind of Christmas gift: A CD titled Muling Aawit ang Pasig, a collection of classic and contemporary songs inspired by the River Pasig, and a Pasig River Heritage Map (which includes the route runners take in the annual Pasig River Heritage Marathon).

According to Celeste Legaspi Gallardo, the CD harnesses the gifts and energies of some of the country’s best musical talents – in itself a cause for celebration.

Let the lyrics of Muling Aawit ang Pasig (by Moy Ortiz/Floy Quintos) ring in our hearts and inspire us to become pebbles of change:

Muling aawit ang Pasig,

Muling aagos ang tubig

Muling magtataglay ng buhay

ang ilog na namamatay.

Tayo ang s’yang bubuhay

pangako’y di nawawalay,

awit natin ang bubuhay

Pasig, ’di ka mamamatay.

Himig ay pagsama-samahin,

ang lakas ay iaalay.

Bagong mata at isip ang gamitin

upang ang ilog ay buhayin.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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