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Suburban poor join Manila's eco-war

Campaign run by 'eco-warriors' uses volunteer workforce to clean up the slums surrounding the city's creeks and bringing life to the waterways.

The clean-up of the Estero de Paco is a small step in trying to rehabilitate the Pasig River, which died years ago because of industrial pollution and human waste.
The clean-up of the Estero de Paco is a small step in trying to rehabilitate the Pasig River, which died years ago because of industrial pollution and human waste.

MANILA // They call themselves River Warriors. Their mission: bring back to life the capital's waterways. Trained by the Philippine police and military, these eco-warriors are made up of the suburban poor who have come together to clean up the filthy streams that feed into the Pasig River.

Decades of neglect have turned dozens of these streams, known locally as esteros, into open rubbish dumps and sewers. The slums that have sprung up around the rotting rubbish and stinking black-water creeks are home to millions of Filipinos who, since the end of the Second World War, have drifted in from the provinces in search of a better life. All the waste in the streams has a deeper implication than just the simple aesthetics of nature. Late last year a tropical storm dumped 117mm of rain on Manila in just six hours, causing the worst flooding in memory. More than 80 per cent of the metropolis was flooded.

According to the then chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority, Bayani Fernando, much of the flooding was caused by squatters living over the creeks and streams. "Decades of neglect and built-up rubbish blocked all these natural water outlets," he told The National at the time. "As a result the water had nowhere to go." Mr Fernando estimated more than 25 per cent of the capital's population squat on or around the water ways.

In February 2009, Gina Lopez, whose family owns the ABS-CBN national television network, launched a campaign to clean up the city's creeks, starting with the Estero de Paco that cuts through the suburb of Paco. In a little more than a year, hundreds of local volunteers have cleaned out thousands of tonnes of rubbish and a lone dredge has scooped out thousands of cubic meters of black, stinking mud from the choked waterway.

It will take years to bring the stream back to life but no one is giving up. Some 390 River Warriors work on the Paco project and it is Ms Lopez's ambition to widen the net to the 50 streams that feed into the Pasic River. The training by the police and military, she said, is physical. "It's to give them a sense of discipline and strength." She said she decided to go ahead with the project because "someone had to do something".

"You can't wait on government to do it for you. By empowering local residents it also gives them a sense of pride that something once so ugly can actually be transformed into something attractive for the people." Holding a cloth to her nose, Ms Lopez recently led a small group of volunteers to inspect the work done over the last 12 months. "So far we have relocated 1,200 families from the 3km stretch of the Estero de Paco," she said.

The water now flows, although it is still black and methane gas bubbles to the surface giving off an odour similar to rotten eggs. It is better than it smelt a year ago, Edgar, one of the River Warriors, said with a smile. "You couldn't even see the creek because over the decades people had built their homes over it. It was used as a sewer and a dump for refuse," he said. The clean up of the Estero de Paco is a small step in trying to rehabilitate the Pasig River, which died years ago because of industrial pollution and human waste. Much of the river is choked by water hyacinth and carries high levels of contaminates from heavy metals, pesticides, nitrates and phosphates.

After the Second World War, Manila, the second most devastated city after Warsaw, needed to quickly rebuild to house tens of thousands of people left homeless. Over the years, Manila grew from a city of one million at the end of the war to 12 to 14 million. Industry quickly sprang up along the Pasig River and sewage freely flowed into its waters. Today much of the industry responsible for polluting the river has been relocated outside the metropolis.

Over the decades numerous studies have been carried out on ways to rehabilitate the river. In 1999 the then president, Joseph Estrada, set up the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission so the "waterway can be rehabilitated to its historically pristine condition conducive to transport, recreation and tourism". The Asian Development Bank lent the commission more than US$100 million (Dh367m) in 2000 to fund the project.

Mr Fernando said one of the problems was trying to relocate squatters from the creeks. "They just didn't move. And even when they were moved they drifted back because they don't have work in the resettlement areas outside Metro Manila." Ms Lopez, however, has had little difficulty in moving the squatters to areas outside the city. "Most of them wanted to go anyway," she said. "People do not want to live in filthy conditions. At least those who have gone have nice housing, water, electricity and sewerage." Surrounded by her River Warriors, Ms Lopez said: "This has transformed hundreds of local people here. What the project has done is give them hope. If you don't have hope you don't have anything." @Email:kwilson@thenational.ae