Thursday, August 12, 2010

Pnoy's surprise visit to an estero near Mendiola Bridge, calls to revive the Pasig River

Perhaps President Noynoy Aquino's brief visit to an estero near Malacanang a couple of days ago might have been a deliberate and symbolic act meant to get the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission to really start doing its job.  

Maybe it was also his way of signalling huge multinational corporations that operate on its banks to not only clean up their factory operations but also take more responsibility in ensuring their products do not end up polluting the Pasig River.

Then again, the only way to know for certain that his visit isn't just a publicity gimmick is if he follows this up with further action. 

At a time of water shortages and worsening traffic conditions, a revived Pasig river may be the key to providing solutions.

Up until the 1940s and 1950s, the Pasig River was a vital transport route -- being the country's first highway, provider of food and potable water.

Right now, the river is mostly black as death and stinks of it too.

Years ago, when the Piso Para sa Pasig Movement of the Ramos Administration was getting some attention in the media, I was given the rather inglorious task of writing a short documentary about efforts to revive the river for then Office of the Press Secretary's weekly TV magazine.

Back then, the Presidential News Desk and friendly media were milling articles saying that efforts to revive the Pasig River was succeeding.  Fish had returned, they said.  The smell and sight of the river had improved a lot, they said.

Of course, with the RTVM office sitting right on the bank of Pasig River, I knew there was some truth to what was being claimed.  But, then again, I also thought that the wonderful claims may have been embellished a bit.

So, after some initial hesitation, I eventually starting shooting video for the short documentary.  

I was able to get my video crew on board one of the PSG river boats that patrolled the banks of the Pasig river.  On that vessel, we were able to visit a pretty long stretch of the river and much to my surprise, only certain sections along the river really gave off the smell of sewerage.  These were the sections where the banks had a pretty large squatter population, sections where esteros were feeding into the river, and sections where raw sewerage was pouring into the Pasig River (specially the one near Quinta Market Quiapo and near Binondo).

I expected that river sections near factories or industrial complexes would be blacker and stinkier, however, much to my surprise, it wasn't.

Based on the little that I observed, I was sort of convinced that households and commercial establishments contributed more to the pollution of the Pasig river than large companies that operated on its banks.  

This view was supported years later by a study made by the Linaw Foundation, a USAID funded organization that helps communities build water sanitation facilities, that said that households and commercial establishments (rich and poor alike) contributed more significantly to water pollution than factories.

Recently, I got wind of an article where Unilever was brandishing its wonder water treatment facility that made water coming from its plant so clean that Kois could live in it.

In an article in Philippine Star titled "Green makes good business ", Unilever crows:
“We want to make sure that we’ll be able to grow our business without raising the impact of our operations on the environment, “ says Chito Macapagal, vice president for Corporate Affairs of Unilever Philippines. “Sustainability is the key here and by implementing such practices now, we achieve a two-fold mission – growing our business by bringing vitality to the lives of individuals and to the community.”
One notable effort is the company’s wastewater treatment facility in its manufacturing plant in Paco, Manila which has been in place since 1994. Wastewater from plant operations go through several processes – including a bath of germ-killing natural bacteria – to make sure that no toxic residue reaches the nearby 25-kilometer waterway which ultimately flows into the Pasig River. The whole system is so effective that the treated water also becomes the habitat of the company’s koi fish.
 This may be so, but it doesn't necessarily let Unilever off the hook.

Even as it makes a biggie out of how clean its factory operations are, it doesn't say anything about the damage done by the plastic sachets of its products -- a significant amount of which ends up clogging drains and esteros.

This article on Pasig River Avenger talks about the sachet problem more fully:’s-a-small-and-filthy-world-after-all/ 
Today, leading consumer goods manufacturers Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Nestle have saturated market shelves with their products in plastic sachets and pouches.
Sadly, the sachet revolution not only filled our shelves but also landfills, waterways and other places where they are dumped, clogging drainage facilities ad triggering massive environmental damage like floods.
Just remember Ondoy  last year and the massive flooding it caused, blamed largely on clogged drains.
Yes, products in sachets are answers to the deteriorating purchasing power of people, (though the same is disputed by economists and business analysts) and manufacturers have the right earn profits by supplying that need,  which they have been doing for many years now.
But how about the moral obligation of being more active in helping clean up the mess caused by the proliferation of their products in sachet?
Globally, there have been mounting calls for giant consumer goods manufacturers like Unilever, Nestle and Procter & Gamble to help in the clean up, but sadly, all we ever got were press releases, publicity stunts and other short term gimmicks meant to silence the issue.
Behind their glitzy gimmicks and other programs, sadly, the problem of mounting piles of plastic sachets in our dumps is still there.
 The thing is, will Unilever get out of the lucrative sachet market in order to maintain its claims of being a protector of the environment?

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