The Iloilo River has been the lifeline of Iloilo City, serving as an anchor for human settlements for centuries, according to Rivers of the World (ROW) Foundation, a US-and-India-based global group dedicated to restoring and protecting rivers and streams.

“A key ingredient to keeping the river waters clean is raising community awareness – a task that has been shaping creative initiatives under the leadership of current mayor of Iloilo City, Jed Patrick Mabilog,” stressed ROW communications director Rajita Majumdar.

Today the centrally located city has become a thriving center for businesses and industries and a major tourism gateway to gorgeous beaches of Boracay Island. Iloilo is often called the “Queen City of the South” by Filipinos, she added.

Showcase of Thriving Urban Biodiversity

“With an integrated river management plan in place, the city is now moving ambitiously on a grand vision to tap into the economic potential of Iloilo River and develop it as the region’s crowning glory.

The government is developing a multi-million dollar Iloilo River Esplanade as the city’s hub for cultural, recreational and tourism activities. It will be a converging place for public entertainment with an open-air park where people can enjoy concerts and performances by the banks of a clean and thriving river – a showcase of ecological balance between human habitat and their natural environment,” Majumdar said.

Enthused by its own success, Iloilo City is stepping up to host the 1st International River Summit end of May in partnership with Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and ROW as one of the supporting global partners.

The event will serve as a global forum on best practices in river management and is meaningfully themed “My River, My Life.”

“Several countries and neighboring regions are expected to participate and share their challenges. Hopefully, the forum will encourage and guide many more cities to revive their rivers and streams and build their economy around it,” she said.

Iloilo River derives fresh water from rivers and creeks that are connected to it and saline water from the sea that feeds it – the rise and fall of tide makes it possible for nutrients, such as planktons and detritus – to circulate in and out of estuary.

“Iloilo River is thus a natural wonder of sorts carrying rare several Philippines’ native mangrove species, as it meanders its way through the urban habitat. Urban biodiversity is thus especially of critical value for Iloilo City,” Majumdar said.

“Greening” a city when a river runs through it poses specially a tough challenge when the city is caught up in rapid economic growth – as is the case with many Asian cities today, she added.

It is indeed quite an honor for a city to receive the International Award for Livable Communities or LivCom endorsed by United Nations Environment Program. LivCom recognizes cities the world over for best practices in environmental management.

One of the largest urban hubs in Philippines, Iloilo City was the proud recipient of 2011 LivCom Award for turning around the fortunes of its dying river with a highly determined river action plan, she said.

Clock Turned Around for a Dying River

Today local and national officials are amazed at how far they have come with just a few years of efforts focused on reviving Iloilo River’s waters and its status in the city, said Majumdar.

The first step took shape of a River Master Plan in 2004 under the environmental stewardship of city mayor at that time. The plan led to the formation in 2005 of a multi-agency Iloilo River Development Council (IRDC), a consultative and coordinative body with primary goals of improving the river water quality and preserving its ecology while promoting sustainable development of the city, she added.

Majumdar cited the following key elements of river management plan:

IRDC facilitates co-regulation, co-monitoring and co-implementation by providing a common forum for multiple bodies to come together on overlapping issues.

It established in 2010 “Bantay Suba” or River Watch Program to enforce anti-littering laws along the river and stop illegal encroachments, fishing and waste dump. The team is a public-private alliance with volunteers from NGOs and Philippines coast guards and naval reserves.

Bantay Suba routinely organizes volunteer river trash clean-up activities, imbibing a spirit of ownership in the community.

City officials are working to relocate illegal dwellings to safer parts of metro areas.

IRDC has been launching pilot wastewater treatment facilities to demonstrate technology options that are affordable and viable and can be replicated to other parts of the region.

Iloilo River is actually an estuary creating a natural and safe harbor where it meets the sea waters – ideal for merchant ships and vessels which explains the city’s rich Spanish colonial history, she noted.

The city, in fact, reminds visitors of a Latin American town with its beautiful old world architecture and ancient Spanish churches, said Majumdar.

Rapid Economic Growth

“The fast rise in the city’s economy over the last few decades has taken a toll on Iloilo River. It had faced occurrences of fish kill, a tell-tale sign of serious levels of water pollution when the water carries way less than desired amounts of dissolved oxygen. Majority of houses rely on onsite water treatment through septic tanks that typically perform poorly,” she added.

“One can easily envision urban rivers lending romance and charm to a city’s tourist attractions… Even as it is a dire environmental need, there is an invaluable economic opportunity awaiting the city to revive the river and spawn businesses around them,” said Majumdar.