‘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?
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