It used to drive us crazy – the trash and sewage, the bad smells and children getting sick with dengue fever,’ says 53-year-old Manila resident Gloria Solomon. She, her husband, and their four children, live in an eight-square-metre shack on the banks of a small canalised stream known as Estero de Paco. Just a few years ago, this two-kilometre tributary of the Pasig River, which flows from Laguna Lake to Manila Bay through the Philippine capital, was choked with rubbish and polluted with sewage. Today, it’s unrecognisable.
More than 100 kilometres of small waterways feed into the 27-kilometre Pasig River. Once populated by bustling ports, grand homes and wealthy merchant families, the banks of the river and its tributaries are now home to the city’s poor, who live in informal settlements.
The city’s sewage system, built by the US colonial powers during the early 20th century, is no longer able to cope with the waste produced by the 12-million-strong population. More than 90 per cent of the waste flows directly into the waterways, untreated. Unsurprisingly, the river has been biologically dead for decades.
But, just as Britain has, more or less, brought the Thames back to life, so the Philippines hopes to do the same to its capital city’s waterway. Since 2011, a ‘green wave’ has been washing through its tributaries, and Estero de Paco is the much-lauded demonstration project.
The view from Solomon’s home is no longer of a detritus-filled open sewer, but of an attractive, grass-banked idyll, where a system of plants and micro-organisms helps to clean the water. ‘We’re much happier,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to see the estero getting cleaner. Families are now doing business selling snacks by the waterside.’
The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, has pledged ten billion pesos (£136million) a year until the end of his term in 2016 to finance the rehabilitation of the Pasig and its tributaries. The clean-up of the Estero de Paco cost 40 million pesos and took one year.
The project has attracted some high-profile support. The Philippine media mogul, Regina Lopez, is funding some of the work through her charitable ABS-CBN Foundation. With boundless enthusiasm for the cause, she regularly leads delegations of community groups, NGOs and officials from other parts of the city along the flower-edged paths beside the newly-cleaned estero in the hope of inspiring them.
‘The waterways are like the circulatory system of the city. Right now, many are breeding grounds for crime, disease and misery,’ she tells me. ‘If we can transform these waterways into places of beauty, joy and harmony with nature, a tremendous effect will be felt not only in the whole city, not only in the whole country but into our very essence as a people, for we are taga-ilog – “from the river”.’
Those who live beside the waterways have been recruited as ‘River Warriors’. Joining with police, the military and other volunteers, they’ve mucked in, ladling out sludge and bagging up rubbish. Coir (coconut fibre) has been used to stabilise the banks, in which deep-rooted vetiver grass has been planted.
Long used to sharing their homes with rats, mosquitoes and cockroaches, residents along the Estero de Paco are enjoying the arrival of more attractive wildlife as the newly planted vegetation has become established. ‘We now have butterflies,’ Solomon says.
As well as the planting on the banks, seven flower-filled islands, lush with water-loving plants such as papyrus and bulrush, now float in the middle of the waterway. More than aesthetically pleasing features, the islands perform an important cleansing function – they are so-called Active Island Reactors, installed by Scottish company Biomatrix Water.
Each 110-square-metre hexagonal island contains a mechanical pump that aerates the water. Hanging below the islands is a system of ‘dynamic-media columns’ that resemble a tangle of old nylon ropes. These, along with the plants’ roots, create a large surface area below the water on which aerobic bacteria can form ‘biofilms’, which actively digest any pollution.
The idea is to give nature a helping hand. ‘The fact that all of these organisms can clean water isn’t new,’ says Galen Fulford, director of Biomatrix Water. ‘But because of the scale of the problem, we needed to increase the efficiency using the principles of ecological engineering.’
Biomatrix Water was spawned in Findhorn, the alternative community in northeastern Scotland where there is a sewage-treatment plant known as a Living Machine, which mimics a wetland. The company adapted principles from this ecological infrastructure into Active Island Reactors. According to Fulford, the islands are well suited for use in cleaning up Manila’s waterways because ‘they can be installed quickly and, importantly, for a crowded city, they don’t take up any space on land. The seven Active Island Reactors are equivalent to a sewage treatment plant for up to 3,000 people.’
Although a small amount of electricity is required to pump water through the island system, there’s a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions: by encouraging aerobic digestion, the amount of methane produced is greatly reduced, Fulford says.
A report from Biomatrix Water has shown that pollution in the water is significantly reduced as it flows through the island reactors. Early on in the life of the scheme, coliforms and pathogens were reduced by more than 50 per cent; levels of ammonia were reduced by 45 per cent and rates of phosphate were reduced by 62 per cent. Even without laboratory analysis, the cleansing activity of the floating islands, which have already survived six typhoons, is clearly visible by the change in colour of the water – from black to grey – as it flows among the islands.
There have been equally impressive community improvements. In surveys – admittedly carried out by the ABS-CBN Foundation – 100 per cent of residents interviewed said that they now get more exercise, as the waterway is a pleasant place to stroll or jog beside; 97 per cent said that the project has brought community pride, a happier community and greater life satisfaction; and 85 per cent said that they now spend less on medical expenses, with an average saving of 819 pesos (£12) per month.
The ABS-CBN Foundation estimates that making the waterway a pleasant place to visit saves the average family 180 pesos (nearly £3) per month on recreation costs. In a country where the average GDP per capita is less than 113,000 pesos (£1,700), such savings are significant.
With nearly 2,000 households living within 50 metres of the estero and a further 7,000 households within 300 metres, the combined social and financial benefits are substantial. Perhaps most importantly for the local residents, the estero is now less prone to flooding, as water flows through it more easily.
However, the story of the clean-up of Estero de Paco isn’t all rosy. Some of the huge cost of rehabilitating the waterways is being spent on relocating any residents who were living within three metres of them. More then 1,000 of the very poorest families – called ‘squatters’ by Lopez – were relocated from the tiny shanty homes they had built on stilts over the water, and from under bridges, where there was only room to crouch.
Although they now live in decent homes that won’t be washed away by floods, these people may now be in danger of drowning in debt. The new houses are in a settlement located in Calauan municipality, about 100 kilometres
from Manila, where employment opportunities are more scarce.
‘We should relocate people to places where there is good housing and jobs, or keep them in the city,’ says Denis Murphy, executive director of Philippines-based NGO Urban Poor Associates, which acts as an advocate for poor urban communities. He cites the example of a woman who attended a recent meeting. ‘She told the participants, “We can’t eat doors and windows.” She was from Muzon, Bulacan which is a lot closer to Manila than Calauan, but she is still too far from Manila to be able to commute to work there. She liked the housing, the doors and windows, but there was no work.’
The clean-up programme’s environmental success has seen it move on to other esteros. There are also moves to undertake major infrastructure work to treat the sewage before it enters the waterways. Longer term, there are plans to replant the Pasig River’s banks with the flowering mangroves, known as nila, that are thought to have been the origin of the city’s name.
In the meantime, the two-kilometre stretch of Estero de Paco continues to impress visitors with what can be achieved with some determination, a bit of creative thinking and some serious investment. Although Fulford acknowledges that ‘the water quality still has a long way to go, as there’s more raw sewage going into it than the islands alone can deal with’, it’s undeniable that what was once a filthy, rubbish-choked sewer is now a pleasant – and certainly less smelly – water garden that brings colour into the lives of those who live along its banks.
This was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine