‘A bucket of hope’

When Alejandro Roces once described Pasig as a short river with a long history, he really meant it in good faith. It’s a haven of memories that are older than all the cities that live in its banks. The most popular of which is the story of Virgilio and Paz who attempted to elope from their disapproving parents, but got separated when Virgilio fell off the ‘banca’. And as he struggles to gasp for air, he shouted ‘Paz, sigue me!’ (Paz, save me!), thus coining the term Pasig. Others say that Pasig came as an anagram of Legaspi who founded Spanish Manila in 1571. The rest dates it back to Chinese merchants. All of these stories are uncertain claims. But if there’s one silver lining to these uncertainties, it is that Pasig River is a big part of the rich history of Manila. It’s our Thames of London, Seine of Paris, Tiber of Rome and Caño Cristales of Colombia.

Pasig River is just one of the thousand water systems that lost its ‘liveability’ because of human intervention. Once, it was home to a million of aquatic creatures that show the biodiversity in our country, a haven indeed for fishes, lily pads, water striders, freshwater seaweeds, geese and many more. Now, it’s still a home, but to many garbage and wastes that metropolitan Manila produces.

According to World Bank, Metro Manila generates about two million cubic meters of wastewater everyday. Out of this volume, only around 17% is treated before being discharged into water channels in and around the Manila metropolis. The majority of which mostly ends up in Manila Bay, directly impacting the existing marine habitat.

At the heart of this worsening situation is the increasing trend of urbanization and the repercussions that it poses to our environment. The unrelenting increase in population, construction of new infrastructures as well as the dispersal of economic activities to the different places in Manila all contributed to the negligence of water bodies. Rivers became ‘huge sewer systems’ and bays were transformed into harbors of ‘pollution tourism’.

It’s heartwarming to know that there are modern heroes who are trailblazing the path to a cleaner Manila. The likes of Engr. Robert Baffrey, Head of Manila Water’s Wastewater Operations Department, inspire us into thinking that while it seems like we’re losing the fight, we need to continue trying. Baffrey is responsible for the implementation of the utility’s sewerage and septage management program that is projected to contribute to the reduction of pollution in Pasig, Marikina and San Juan rivers. The effort also extends to the total wastewater management in Metro Manila.

Yet we’re not half the mile. The fight against water pollution and destruction of aquatic resources is not an exclusive concern. All of us - common people, middlemen, government and big companies - have a significant role in making this world a little more responsive to the water problem. Mindset is a good starting point.

Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo once cited the difference between how pre-Spanish Filipino children would describe the Philippines and how modern children would. Interestingly, the difference is only a single word. Before, they will say that the Philippines is an archipelago made up of 7,107 islands ‘connected by water’. Now, students would say that the Philippines is an archipelago made up of 7,107 islands ‘separated by water’.

The way we look at water systems has continually evolved across generations. Before, water bodies like seas and rivers are viewed based on how they connect two places in a way that enables trading. Now, we look at waters as areas of separations, such as how humans use them as channels of dirt and waste and how we separate ourselves from engaging with them. We look at them based on depths, rather than their ability to bridge human life to other forms of life that live in these natural ecosystems.

We need to change this mindset that perpetuates disregard to our environment. If we look at water systems as equally connected to our lives, we’re more likely able to develop an affinity to be more responsible in respecting them.

Today, the Pasig Ferry is back in operation. Gone are the days when we used to appreciate the beauty of the river as it slowly glides through pristine waters. The colorful light reflections in the water produced by clubs and bars surrounding the river are clear manifestations of how far we are from innocent memories of historical purity that we once had. And when the daylight shines, the night-lights slowly fade away and are replaced by dark waters that symbolize how grave our abuses were, when we could have had all the chance to live while protecting our nature altogether.

Pasig River is dying. But our symbolic river represents the way we treat our water systems, our efforts to fight for their conservation and our accountability to admit that we have an obligation to protect our environment. If we fail to see a clean Pasig River in our lifetime, should that mean that we stop trying to save the river and other water systems altogether?

This is the theme in the recent Sustainability Collaboration Meeting on Wastewater by the Philippine Business for the Environment (PBE). 11 representatives from different companies synergized for a collaborative effort in improving wastewater management in Manila. Some of the issues raised in the event are lack of public awareness and education, high cost of equipment, unclear and outdated public policies and poor enforcement and monitoring scheme. The participants then proposed solutions that would co-opt these issues, given the resources that these companies have. The activity is a close reflection to what Mattie Stepanek once said, that ‘when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved’. And it still holds true today.

Indeed, a multi-faceted approach is necessary to revive the beauty and life of our water systems.  The clear difference now is we’re not just looking at beauty based on the end result, but we’re looking at the beauty of human kind being ‘environmental stewards’ themselves in protecting the environment.

For every sweat that we spare, we give possibilities to fill a bucket of hope, that maybe one day, our world will once again see the beauty of the water systems that we once had. It’s one step at a time.

It’s important for us to acknowledge that global apathy remains to be the biggest issue that we are facing today. And if we slowly trudge the right path, sure we will have a future that will reap the fruits of what we’re all sweating for. Maybe not in this lifetime, but at least there, we did our own share of protecting the Earth - our home. Because if it’s not us, who will?


The Unheard Voices of Sierra Madre

Plain. Repetitive. Humble.

This is how I would describe the life in a community in Sierra Madre Mountains near General Nakar, Quezon. It doesn’t have any tourist attraction, nor does anything we wouldn’t have seen in any other province in the Philippines. But this is where my life-changing story happened.

I am raised in Bukidnon. As I grow up, I find myself always pacing away from home. I studied in different cities just to find out the meaning of what they call ‘difference’. I even went as far as New York only to find the pieces of the answer I’m looking for. But the question-at-large remains - what exactly will I be doing for the rest of my life?

It was in the year 2012 when I got the answer. I was then shortlisted as one of the 20 National Finalists to DENSO Youth Earth Action, an international environmental youth program and project proposal competition on environment. 20 eco-warriors from different places in the Philippines travelled all the way to Laguna for Mother Earth.

The day of immersion came. It was just an hour winding bus ride from the resort to the top of the mountain range. The view was breathtaking. There were fogs everywhere and we seem to be higher than the clouds. And the stillness of the road where we took off perfectly complements the silence that surrounds us, allowing us to appreciate the nature around.

After a series of picture taking, we started trudging the path down the mountains. I was wearing slippers for the trek because I don’t have any trekking sandals that time. Along the way, we have found many rare plants in the biodiversity such as the carnivorous pitcher plant. We have also met some locals who are heading upwards, bringing some of their produce to sell them to the market.

It took us about 2 hours to reach the river that we can see from above. In the river, there was only one ‘banca’ (‘small boat’) that can cater around 3-4 people. We have to cross this wide and deep river to reach our target community. It was a scary ride because we don’t have any vests and it’s also very windy. The good thing is that the ‘bankeros’ (‘boat paddlers’) were experts already in managing the ‘banca’ so they already know how to go across the waves. 

By the time we reached the other side, we took another short trek to reach the community where we will be having our immersion. Our final leg is the school located just a distance away from some houses.

The parents of the children who were studying in the elementary school welcomed us. We were then divided into different groups. Each group was assigned a certain task and such was done in rotation to expose all of us into the different kinds of activities. We were all working to find and prepare food for our lunch.

The first task for our group was the harvesting of shrimps in the river. I got amazed with how the locals prepare the harvesting basket and make it efficient. They just place the harvesting baskets in different points in the river.  When we were already looking for the baskets, we were amazed with the number of shrimps that were trapped. It was very resourceful. And then we climbed a ‘Santol’ tree to get some ripe fruits.

At the same time, my other friends were gathering coconut, picking vegetables from the garden and many other things. That was one of the best lunches I could ever remember. A talk with the locals and eating real food from the ‘bukid’ is just so heartwarming.

In the afternoon, we learned other activities that the community is doing. We plowed the rice field and we also learned about vermi-composing and bio-intensive gardening. They feed the produced vermi as a fertilizer in their bio-intensive garden. The organic garden serves as their source of food, as well as economic produce to the market.

After doing these activities, we called out all the children and we played with them. We did a role-playing activity and it was just very amazing how the children were very warm and participative. We gave them snacks after that, which were just a piece of cake and a juice.  I can see the smiles in their faces and the sparks in their eyes.

While some of them started trudging their paths from the school, two young boys, probably aged 10, approached me.  One of them was a bit shy, and the other boy broke the silence. “Salamat, kuya ha”, (“Thank you, big brother”) uttered the young boy with a barely innocent face. I asked him, “Sa’n ba ang bahay niyo?” (“Where is your house?”) And he told me, “Malayo pa, sa ikatatlong bundok galing dito” (“It’s far, about 3 mountains from here”). Then, I never answered back. It’s not because of the fact that I know how it feels to walk miles just to have access even to the bottom of the social development ladder. It’s because I realized how blessed I am when I kept on looking at what’s lacking. How can a young boy, pure at heart, be so grateful just for having a little bit of my time and a piece of cake?

Then they started leaving in the dusk until I could only see their smallest shadows. But they left me sobbing for realizing how grateful I should be. In that moment, right there, I promised to myself with certainty that I will go back to that place and help them in the future. At the same time, I promised that I would continue doing social-development work for as long as it could be. I know it’s a heartbreak conference. Some people might never even be able to understand. But at least there, even if it’s small and humble, I’m making a ‘difference’.

Photo Credit: Ata Roxas 


ASEAN Youth Summit 2013

One of the blessings that I received last December was being chosen to attend the LEAD ASEAN Youth Summit. LEAD stands for Lead, Engage, Activate and Develop. It is a program sponsored by the US Embassy, in partnership with the Ayala Foundation. Together with 150 youths from different countries in the Southeast Asia region, we carved unforgettable memories for the 3 days program and lasting friendships that go beyond borders. 

There are a lot of things that happened in this program. It's probably one of those youth gatherings that will stress you out with its schedule, I must admit. But I'm so happy that I know a lot of people even before the commencement of the event. They say, the world of youth leaders is so small because you seem to see each other from one program to another. And this is like the platform that allowed us to meet altogether. I'd say, I've known about 30 participants already and met them in different programs and acquaintances before this. 

Alumni of the 1st LEAD ASEAN Youth Summit 2013

For me, conferences, forums, youth gatherings and others are in a "hit or miss" equation. They are filled with speakers coming from different backgrounds. So either they get your attention because they're naturally interesting, they're funny, popular, an experienced public speaker or they miss it all along and help you continue with your dreams and the awesome stories behind them.

US Ambassador to the ASEAN David Carden (left) and Chairman and CEO of Ayala Corp. Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala  (right)

But who will give the doubts if these are the two people who will give the talk? They've been known for their inspirational words and thoughts. Sir Jaime is the man behind the Ayala Young Leaders Congress. They opened the program with inspiring words, tapping on the potentials of young people to help in addressing the pressing issues of today.

Taal Volcano in Tagaytay Highlands

I finally got to visit Tagaytay and see for myself the Taal Volcano. This is one of my dream places to visit in Luzon. Upon riding off the bus, the first thing that I said was, "It's like Baguio City!" The chills that the wind bring into your skin is amazing. And this view is from Taaleña restaurant, where we had our lunch that time. 

Tagaytay Highlands is a wonderful place. The area surround the lake so tourism is really leveraged with many hotels, souvenir shops, viewing decks and other tourism hubs. 


This is in Nuvali. It's an eco-city which is another project of the Ayala Lands. It aims to integrate environmental strategies in urban living. It's a great place since it has its own shopping mall, village, private companies and continually the area is expanding. You can do boating and fish feeding in this eco-city. This is the first time that I saw an overcrowded fish feeding area. The Koi fishes are really so noisy, like they haven't eaten for ages.

with Robbie and Zob (upper left), with Bell (upper right) and with Angel and Soro at the bottom

This is the highlight of the good memories of this program - having met my old friends once again. I knew Robbie and Zob before because of our environmental involvement. Ironically, I have met Robbie a couple of times before in debate tournaments but we're not friends those times yet. I met Bell last 2012 in Indonesia because of a Climate Change Training. Bell had probably joined all youth environmental programs you could ever think of. And then my special friends Angel and Soro who are my classmates in Ball State.

This is the second time that I met Angel since we went to US last 2011. Soro hails from Papua Islands in Indonesia and I didn't know that he will be my roommate in this program (I didn't even know that he's gonna be here). Soro missed his international flight heading to Manila so he needed to buy a new plane ticket in order to join the event.

Hardrock Makati and Hotel Intercon
And finally, spending good times with people who wanted to do so much to the best of their capacities in their respective places. This will certainly be remembered.

I got a share of bloopers in this program, just like any others that I have attended. The worst is eating the food in the hotel room upon arrival which I thought was ours. Dude, they lured me with a lot of good stuff like chocolates, peanuts and many other wraps in the table. Good thing I didn't drink that Evian water (What did they mix with that P500.00 one-liter bottle of water that made it so costly?) So I ended up paying triple the usual cost of the food upon check-out. Darn!

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