The muddy waters of Pasig River 


In his novel “El Filibusterismo” José Rizal describes how a captain navigates his old and ponderous steamer “Tabo” on the Pasig River to the Laguna Bay. The river meandered  and the narrow fairway was marked by wood stakes only insufficiently. Sandbanks blocked the way of the river again and again. The Pasig is not yet canalized and has no bank reinforcement. It "glitters in the morning sunlight". Little carpets of water lilies are slowly drifting down the river. The Pasig is rich in fish, many fish traps are laid out. Mangroves and bamboo bushes line the banks. Bathing people enjoy themselves in the river, often they can still see the bottom of the river. And let us hope that they did not meet one of the crocodiles which are still shall in the river and adjacent Laguna sea. The quality of water plays already an important role. When in 1820 a Cholera epidemic broke out, foreigners are accused to have poisoned the Pasig. Some of them are massacred. The water of the river was regarded as sacrosanct.  

There are various speculations over the origin of the river name "Pasig". Some say it derives from the Tagalog and stands for sandbank. Others suspect that the name could be a spoonerism of the name of Legaspi, the first Spanish general governor. Already before the arrival of Spanish colonizers – when Manila was still ruled over by Still was ruled over by Muslim Rajahs - the Pasig was an important traffic route on which goods and persons were transported.

Let's add some data about the river itself. The Pasig is only about 25 km long and connects the Manila Bay with the Laguna lake.

The Laguna Bay with its 922 km2 (almost the double of the area of Lake Constance) is one of the biggest freshwater lakes of Southeast Asia and has an average depth of water of only round about two metres. Into which direction the rivers flows depends on the water level of the sea in the Manila Bay and such of the Laguna Bay. It varies seasonal. If the water-level of the Laguna lake sinks in the dry season (March - May) and high saltwater floods of the Manila Bay press in the Pasig then the water can stand or even can flow backwards. The fishermen of the Laguna Lake are ascribing positive effects to the saltwater influx into the Laguna Lake and they argued therefore against the erection of a dam between river and the lake.

Nowadays the river is between 120 (Manila Bay mouth) and 60 metres wide and four to six metres deep. It flows through a densely populated area. It is estimated that actual approx. 4.4 million of the 15 million people in Manila are living on or nearby  the river and his 13 tributaries (2). The river system of the Pasig passes in the area of Manila eight towns and three larger communities. North of the river are e.g. the villages of Binando, Quiapo, Sampalag, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, Santa Mesa and Tondo, in southern direction we can find among others Ermita, Intramuros, Malate, Paco, Pandacan, Port Area, San Andres, Bukid and Sta. Anna.

Again back for the history of the river. At the end of the 19th century the port of Manila was extended further and the Pasig canalized. The canalization enabled a safer and more economic use of the waterway to the Laguna Bay. Then the first four big bridges over the were built. Today eight bridges span over the Pasig in Manila. It was chic to live and to promenade at the banks of Pasig. The rich had their houses near the river and the presidential palace Malacanang was also built near the Pasig. A little bit too flamboyantly  the river was compared with the "Canale Grande" of Venice.

Later the industrialization starts  and more and more factories were settled at the waterfront. Today the number of factories is round about 300. The water quality of the Pasig begins to worsen. The fish populations decline in the thirties and warnings are issued not to bath in the river. A decade later laundry is practically not more washed in the river. The river begins to stink. Instead of water lilies now more more coloured plastic bags with waste could be seen swimming on the surface. The business activities shift more and more to Makati, the richer persons are looking for new attractive residential areas. The riverside region loses housing quality. Now the "Canale Grande" has become a sewer. The water pollution comes mainly from domestic and industrial sources. According to a newer UNO report of 2006 150 tons of domestic solid and liquid waste and 75 tons of industrial waste are dumped into the Pasig daily - that's about 82,000 tons waste a year (3). Pollution from leachate because of bad sanitation and sewerage cannot be measured exactly but has enormous dimensions. Especially the squatter colonies lined at the banks the river became a target of criticism.

The squatters are sometimes also called - less discriminatory - "Informal Settlers" or "Urban Poors". As of the sixties they began to settle at the river banks in increasing number. They left their impoverished homes in the provinces in the hope Manila would offer them more better earnings. Mostly they settle on public ground without any permission or renting contract. They   live in very modest quonsets with plywood walls and without connection to the waterworks systems. The huts are often standing on stilts because in the rainy season the Pasig frequently bursts its banks. The number of the squatters on the Pasig is not constant and can only be estimated. In 2000 it was supposed that round about 60,000 families are directly living at the river banks. That correspondents to 300.000 persons, if we assume five persons in a average family(4). In his profound article on the squatters Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff even reckons the number of river-residents at 350,000(5). If we follow this author, almost a third of the population of Metro Manila can be classified as squatters.

Since the squatter families do not connections to the main water supply, they have to look if there is a public water installation or faucet, have to tap a water pipe illegally or they have to buy drinking water, which can be expensive. And where to go with the domestic waste, if there is no garbage collection or a sewage system? One possibility could be to deposit it secretly in the neighbourhood area. However, the more direct and faster way leads to the Pasig river, which then becomes a substitute sewer. There is another estimate after which the Pasig-Squatters transfer daily approximately 35 tons solid and 150 tons liquid waste into the river (6). 

In connection with this we should mention that the sewer system in Manila is one of the poorest in South East Asia. More than 11 million inhabitants of Metro Manila (approximately 85%) do not have proper access to sewerage facilities  according to the Environmental Management Bureaus (EMB). Only almost 15% are connected to sewer lines managed by the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System and private concessionaire Manila Water Co. 85 per cent of the population discharge its toilet waste into tanks, which are not cleaned or treated for years and /or conduct the untreated water via channels into the Pasig (7).  So the groundwater in Metro Manila is contaminated in high extent and it has already penetrated into the public water line system. The World Bank values the annual economic losses caused by water pollution at about P67 billion  and the same institution is reporting that between 1996 and 2000 about 31% of the monitored illnesses can be explained by dirty water (particularly diarrhoea). These special health costs are estimated at about P 3.3 billion per year (8) .

For government circles the squatters were always a disgrace and annoyance. Already under president Ramos resettlements of squatters were carried out. From the approx. seven resettlement places especially Dasmarinas, Cavite and Kasiglahan Village I in Montalban - also called "Erap City” centre - have become known. Erap City is more than twenty kilometres from the outskirts away from Manila and offers only few work opportunities at the place. Therefore it is not surprising that an investigation showed, that already in the first two years 30 - 40 per cent of the resettlers returned from their tenement houses back to the Pasig River. In the long term the percentage increased even to 80 per cent. Again and again there are disputes between the squatters and the officials about the question which limit distance between the hats and the banks of the river should be respected. The squatters prefer – if at all – a three metre distance,  the municipal authorities demand a distance from ten metres.

The dispute escalated in September 2000 at the place Pineda. Time before the authorities ordered already a compulsory evacuation of 12,000 families. Another 270 huts should be demolished now. The dispute resulted in physical attacks, a demolition worker was killed. The situation would have kept on worsening, if not the Asian Development Bank, the financer of the project, would have insisted on more peaceful measures of enforcement. The resettlement conflicts are not cleared up to this day. Now a gradual proceeding is announced. First the families very near to the river should be resettled, those living away from the river should follow later.  

To the contamination of the Pasig contribute also round about 300  of the 2000 commercial enterprises. Partly they discharge  their sewages untreated into the river. Between 1980 and 1990 they contributed to about 44 per cent to the pollution. In 2000 especially the glassworks "Republic Asahi" and the chemistry factory "Chemphil" - next to the textile processing factories - became a target for environmentalists.

Greenpeace could prove by taken samples that they are substantially responsible for the discharge of noxious metallic substances  High levels of copper and manganese und to a lower extend of lead, nickel and zinc). In recent time, however, there are indications that the industrial water pollution is regressive. Cleaning standards and efficient means of control are still missing, however. The government tries to resettle some industrial plants and to use the new free areas for residential buildings and parks.

In view of these deplorable state of affairs the intentions for the rehabilitation of the river are quickly listed:  

-  Improvement on the water quality by short-term cleaning measures in the river (e.g. excavation the river sludge and  removal of ship wrecks) and long-term elimination of the pollution sources

- Improvement in the environmental conditions at the river (squatter resettlements, creation of parklands and recreation areas)

-  Reduction of the river floods

-  Improvement in the transport conditions on the river

Those responsible were very optimistic about the realization of their programme and referred to  successful river rehabilitations in abroad (Rhine, Thames, Seine). The realization, however, did not come up to the expectations. The enormous financial expenditure was neglected and measures started only very selectively in the past. The areas of responsibility were fragmented, decision-making processes unnecessarily bureaucratized and the means of control deficient.

Already Imelda Marcos - as governor of Manila - dreamt about making the Pasig more attractive for tourists by the establishments of casinos and restaurants. But her dreams resulted only in the colour painting of some river walls and the planting of few trees. As of 1989 the responsible  start with foreign help at least with analyses and inventories. The Pasig River Rehabilitation Program (PRRP) got adopted. It included provided 21 different projects with a total cost expenditure of 420 millions US$. The expectation was that the most necessary would be done within 10 -15 years. But, to this day, the Herculean task is far from its end. Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff judges harshly : The old programs "have cost a lot of money and caused little" (9).

In 1999 President Estrada established the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), which is now responsible for the river rehabilitation together with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In 1990 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has granted a credit of 176 million US$  for the rehabilitation of the Pasig. The paying out of the credit tranches depends on successful measure steps. The ADB checks and corrects. Now the expectation is that the Pasig  could be brought into a tolerable waters class up to the year 2014.

After years of the relative indifference a modest progress is made. Already in the nineties, the dredging out of river started. The deposition of the morass still causes problems. Sunk boats and barges which endangered the navigation were raised. Some industrial plants were resettled for example to Calabarzon.

Already 1990 there was a first attempt to improve the passenger transport on the Pasig. A  relatively reasonably priced ferry services with "River Buses" and seven hold stations was established. In 30 - 40 minutes people could be transported from Bambong in the east up to the river muzzle in the west. The favourable point is the time advantage. The chronically blocked traffic needed double time. However, the ferry traffic was stopped after two years, because it operated not cost-effectively. Another reason was, that in the summer time the passengers turned up their noses because of the stench of the river water. In spring 2006 the establishment of a new ferry-line was planned.  It should operate with six ships – each with a seating capacity of 150 persons -  end of this year. 14 hold stops are planned. The intention is to transport at least 28,000 passengers daily (10). It remains to be seen if this new passenger service gets accepted. It could make a contribution to the traffic relief of the streets.

The river is cleaner than in the nineties and it is told that the smell is not anymore so pungent. The harmful industrial discharges have been reduced and the resettlement actions are at least partially successful. Promenades are connecting 15 amusement parks particularly in Makati. which are, however, not fully accepted by the population. It remains a lot to do until the river has found its original beauty and dignity. The time presses.  

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2006


1. Cf. Jose Rizal, El Filibusterismo, the subversion, Ger. translation from Günter Schwarz,, chapter 1

2. Rivers, The Lifeblood of Asia,, page 5

3. United Nations Study -- Pasig now one of the world's most polluted rivers, Philippine Daily   Inquirer, 11-11-2006

4. Pasig River system, Metro Manila, Murphy, Denis; Anana, Ted, Urban Poor  Associates, Philippines. Case study, 2004, in:

5. Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, Squatting in Manila,  

6. Rivers - The Lifeblood of Asia,, page 6

7. Blanche S. Rivera, 11 M in Metro have no sewer Access, 8-1-2005, in:  

8. Avigail Olarte, RP's sanitation and sewerage problem among of the worst in Asia, in:

9. Moritz Kleine-Brockhoff, Squatting in Manila, http://www.heinz-kuehn-, p. 17

10. Elaine Ruzul S. Ramos, Pasig River boats back this year?, in: Manila Standard Today, 5.26.2006