What needs to happen first in order for water body rehabilitation efforts to succeed

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By Robert Y. So

IN OCTOBER 2018, the Pasig River made headlines for winning the inaugural Asia River Prize award from the International River Foundation. The organization recognized the efforts of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) to clean and restore the river to make it biologically habitable again. These efforts include removing structures that directly pollute the river, diverting waste being discharged into the river, and relocating thousands of informal settlers around the river into decent homes.

Less than a year later, the PRRC would make headlines again as President Rodrigo Duterte fired its executive director, Jose Antonio Goitia. While no specific reason was given for the termination, the administration stated that it was part of “the President’s continuing mandate to eradicate graft and corruption.”

Notably, the sacking came only a few months after the Commission on Audit reported that six of PRRC’s rehabilitation projects were moving very slowly despite already using a majority of their respective budgets. While PRRC subsequently denied the claims, it still admitted that it was facing challenges with the six projects, namely the presence of informal settlers and opposition from local government units.

The situation underscores an unfortunate reality in local water rehabilitation projects — it takes more than a couple of cleanup efforts to really become impactful. In order for the Pasig River, Manila Bay, and all other bodies of water around the country to be fully rehabilitated, there needs to be some fundamental changes done in the areas surrounding them to ensure that any cleanup effort won’t go to waste.

To understand what it takes to make a water rehabilitation project effective, it’s best to look at successful examples around the world. Fortunately, one of the most noteworthy water rehabilitation projects in recent history can be found in neighboring Singapore.

As Singapore rose as a global center for trade and commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s main body of water, the Singapore River, became more and more polluted. With both residential and commercial locations dumping their waste into the river, it became a large, foul-smelling obstacle and a negation of Singapore’s development.

In fact, nothing concrete was done until 1977. By then, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had ordered various Singaporean government agencies to undertake the cleaning of the Singapore River as well as the adjacent Kallang Basin. After years of extensive planning, the government embarked on a 10-year plan to restore the river to its former glory.

A study by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted three activities that had to be done to fast track the rehabilitation project, on top of actually removing the waste that was already in the bodies of water. First was the relocation of several commercial industries around the river that dumped hazardous waste into the river, which included farms, vendors, and manufacturing plants. Second was to move the thousands of informal settlers living along the edges of the bodies of water, who discharged waste into the rivers for their daily sanitary needs, into public housing.

Third, and perhaps the most important, was to recognize pollutants that were far away from the bodies of water, emanating from areas around the country that didn’t have proper sewage systems. As the sewage in these areas wasn’t treated correctly, their waste was eventually discharged into the rivers and contributed to increasing water pollution. And so various government agencies were mobilized, tasked to remove any structures that discharged untreated waste into the rivers as well as to connect these areas to a formal sewerage system.

While local water rehabilitation efforts have been able to replicate the first two activities of the Singapore River rehabilitation project, the same can’t be said about the third activity. Manila Water revealed at the start of the year that its sewerage system covered only 23% of its clients, while Maynilad’s equivalent figure was 20% by the end of 2018.

Both concessionaires have been fined by the Supreme Court for these low figures as a violation of the Clean Water Act. However, Manila Water and Maynilad both attributed these low figures to citizens choosing not to connect to their sewerage systems for fear of incurring higher costs in their utility bills due to sewerage charges. The two have urged the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to task local government units in mobilizing these sewerage efforts in their own areas.

Moreover, the two concessionaires are only required to treat the sewage of residential properties. Thus, other types of properties such as commercial, office, and industrial developments need to treat their own sewage and waste water, and they do so by tapping specialty contractors that provide the necessary sewerage technology. While the discharge from these private developments is regulated, these specialty contractors are not. The authenticity of their technology is left to the property developers to validate, resulting in a large variance between the quality of sewage and waste water treatment per development.

All these figures mean that an overwhelming majority of waste being dumped into the bodies of water around Metro Manila is not treated properly. Even if large-scale cleanups of the Pasig River and Manila Bay happen, they will not be able to do anything about the untreated waste that will be discharged into these bodies of water by unsewered locations, further increasing water pollution and hindering rehabilitation efforts.

What needs to happen, then, is to fast track the installation of sewerage systems across the region in order to ensure that any waste discharged into Manila Bay and the Pasig River has been treated properly. Proper sewerage will not only reduce the pollution in the region’s bodies of water, it will also improve the quality of life for many residents, as they will be less prone to waterborne diseases.

Taking a page from the Singapore River rehabilitation, this effort must involve the contributions of various government agencies and private companies, as improving the sewerage system of an entire region requires massive investments in technology and infrastructure. The 10-year Singapore River rehabilitation project reportedly cost the Singaporean government around S$200 million. Factoring inflation, that would cost around S$342 million today, or almost P13 billion.

Fortunately, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System has already set targets for improving the sewerage coverage in Metro Manila. While it found the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ target of 100% coverage by 2026 “unrealistic,” the agency is committed to connect the entire region to a sewerage system by 2037. It further revealed that it aims to reach 40% coverage by 2022, which it considers the “tipping point.”

It is only through installing proper sewerage systems across the region and through private developers investing in authentic and appropriate sewage treatment technology that we will be able to start fully restoring the Pasig River, Manila Bay, and the rest of the region’s bodies of water to their former glory. While it might take longer than the 10 years it took Singapore to clean up its major rivers, the care, consideration, and mindset to do things right will result in a most significant effort by government, the private sector, and communities to make the region’s bay and waterways great again — the same that first brought life to a city and defined Manila as our nation’s capital.