The 1st Philippine International River Summit that Iloilo City is hosting May 29-June 1 has caught the interest of an Indian columnist.

“The International River Summit will be the platform where Iloilo will proclaim its success to the world and some 1,000 participants from around the world are expected to be around to applaud,” stressed Barun Roy, columnist of India’s leading newspaper Business Standard.

“For Iloilo, the summit’s theme, ‘My River, My Life,’ couldn’t be more appropriate,” he said in his column posted May 17 on the daily’s website.

Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog said the big global environmental event sets the trend in river protection and preservation not only in the country but worldwide.

Roy also credited the introduction of economical wastewater treatment technology implemented in the city as a significant improvement in ecologically-sustainable urban development.

“The best part of the clean-up drive went into raising public awareness against the discharge of untreated wastewater. Businesses were shown easy and affordable ways of wastewater treatment, using technologies that avoid or minimize the use of mechanical or energy-dependent parts,” Roy said.

“A pilot low-cost treatment facility was set up at a slaughterhouse, and the result was so convincing that others took up the cue and set up facilities of their own,” he noted.

City Environment and Natural Resources Officer Noel Z. Hechanova said most hospitals in city have either completed or in planning process of installing their wastewater treatment facilities even as the hotels would follow suit.

Bringing back the river to life

Roy likened the Iloilo River conservation efforts to the success of Singapore, China and South Korea in running a sustainable river management.

“When good intentions are backed by strong will, even a dead river can be brought back to life. Singapore has proved it beyond a shred of doubt, as have Shanghai and Seoul, and now Iloilo in the Philippines is ready to prove it once again when it hosts an international river summit at the end of May,” Roy said.

Excited local authorities have started building a multi-million-dollar esplanade along the river to serve as the city’s cultural, recreational, and tourism lifeline, he added.

“The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has now reported a significant reduction in the river’s coliform bacteria level.

Over the next few years, mounds of floating garbage were scooped out of the river and all illegal structures and fish pens impeding its flow were removed.

The banks were cleared of all unauthorized dwellings and a round-the-clock river watch was introduced, with volunteers from non-government organizations, Coast Guard, and naval reserves enforcing strict anti-litter laws and stopping illegal encroachments, fishing, and dumping of waste,” Roy stated.

Stretching 15 kilometers, the Iloilo River is actually an estuarine water body that forms a safe, natural harbor at the point where it meets the sea.

“Theoretically, it’s supposed to be kept alive by a network of connecting rivers and creeks, but that support system broke down long ago under the relentless onslaught of an unplanned, ill-sewered, but economically prospering city dumping millions of gallons of pollutants into it,” Roy said.

“By 2000, the river was close to biological death and alarmed authorities felt something had to be done urgently. Action came in the form of a River Master Plan put in place in 2004 and a River Development Council set up in succeeding year, which provided the administrative framework for launching a systematic clean-up campaign,” he added.

Iloilo next to Manila

“Iloilo, in the mid-Philippines scramble of islands known as the Visayas, is the country’s second most economically important city and has a history perhaps as important as Manila’s.

Setting off its later prosperity as the country’s sugar and textile capital, trade boomed when a port was opened in 1855 and, as the place grew to be the regional center for the entire Western Visayas, people, factories, and businesses descended on it in large numbers.

Stone warehouses sprouted all along the Iloilo River and fish pens crowded its bed — where burgeoning commercial, industrial, and human activities go into the river that cut through the city,” Roy said.

Reviving Pasig River too

“While Iloilo celebrates, however, up north on the island of Luzon, Metropolitan Manila is dealing with its own ‘river of shame,’ the Pasig,” said Roy.

“By the 1980s, all fishing activities in the 27-km waterway, stretching from Laguna de Bay and winding through the heart of the busy capital before emptying into Manila Bay, had stopped.

By 1990, the river, with its 48 esteros (creeks), turned into a network of stinking channels that squatters loved and citizens hated. A Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission has been in existence since 1999, but the will to act has just not been strong enough,” he added.

ADB to the rescue

“Now the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is trying to kickstart a rescue effort and a clean-up of the esteros is already underway.

The ADB sees it, rightly, as a poverty and welfare issue, and if it succeeds, there could be many other dead Asian urban rivers claiming its attention,” Roy said.

“According to a World Bank study, 81 per cent of all sewage in the Philippines goes untreated, and experts say about 90 per cent of all wastewater across Asia is disposed of raw.

Indian Rivers like Pasig too

“The five rivers around Dhaka, for example, are all biologically dead and the water is hardly better than sludge. The Buriganga alone is said to receive some 40,000 metric tonnes of harmful tannery discharges every day. Our own Ganga and Yamuna are as noxious as the Pasig.

Together, Asia’s dead or dying rivers are a huge environmental disaster that the ADB cannot ignore,” said Roy.

Business Standard covers international financial news and issues.