“I can’t think of no better host — and no better model — than the Iloilo City Government,” stressed President Benigno Aquino III who keynoted June 1 the culmination of 1st Philippine International River Summit in the metropolis.

“The work they have poured into restoring and protecting Iloilo River is impressive: from dredging operations, to planting mangroves and conducting cleanup drives, to institutionalizing the Iloilo River Development Council,” the country’s chief executive told some 1,000 participants of the global forum.

Aquino also inaugurated the Iloilo River Esplanade at the riverbank in Mandurriao district which he described as “a testament to the importance Iloilo gives to its resources.”

The President thanked Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog, Senator Frank Drilon, among others for their support to these projects.

People of rivers

“We Filipinos have always been a people of rivers. From the earliest days of our history, it is along the shores of our rivers that we founded our communities and derived our livelihoods,” said Aquino.

“Today, we have found more and more ways to harness our rivers, using them as sources of hydroelectric power, irrigation, and additional water supply, among others,” he added.

“And yet, we find that they are now amongst the most beleaguered of our natural resources. Studies have shown that human activity plays a large part in degradation of our 421 principal river basins — from inappropriate and sometimes illegal agricultural and forestry activities, to unregulated land conversion that contributes to siltation and sedimentation: in other words, poor water management,” Aquino noted.

Unified mindset

“After giving much thought to problems of our water sector, it was apparent to me and to members of our Cabinet that we needed to approach our water resources from a holistic point of view and a unified mindset. We had to leave behind the confusion of the past — with over 30 different water-related agencies with overlapping mandates,” he said.

To that end, Aquino created an Inter-Agency Committee on Water Sector headed by DPWH Secretary Babes Singson, to create a comprehensive master plan for water sector. The proposal includes an agency to manage national water resources, a proposal that needs careful review.

Shared responsibility

“Our presence here today signifies that all of us — whether we are members of government, or members of civil society; whether we are Filipinos or foreigners — have taken on the shared responsibility of protecting our rivers,” Aquino said.

“Knowing as we do that human activities have contributed to degradation of this important resource, we can now take the necessary steps to correct our mistakes. We have been given the chance to learn from each other,” he encouraged.

“And this summit has shown us that there are ways for us to balance our needs with our wants: to make use of our rivers and other water resources without destroying or draining them,” he added.

“Rest assured: your government is doing its share. Apart from improving our efficiency in protecting and managing our water resources, we also have our National Greening Program (NGP),” Aquino said.

Going green

GNP aims to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares of land by the time Aquino steps down which will come in about four years and 28 and a half days.

“This will help us to sustain our ground and surface water storage and supply by increasing forest cover, especially in river basin areas. As an added bonus, it will also help us control flooding, one of the most devastating effects of improper management of our water resources,” he said.

Guardians of rivers

Under the leadership DENR Secretary Ramon Paje, there has had much success in their “Adopt an Estero/River” Program.

Right now, they are working with 272 different partners from the private sector who have adopted 186 different bodies of water.

“These partners of ours from the private sector have agreed to be guardians, so to speak — fulfilling an important role in reducing water pollution, increasing dredging activities, and preserving our rivers and esteros,” Aquino said.

“This is what proper management and sustainable development of our resources allow us to do. It allows us to ensure a good harvest for our farmers, and enough power for our businesses and homes. It allows us to maintain the beauty of and ensure the sustainability of our rivers, so we do not rob the next generations of these valuable resources. And it allows us to protect our environment and improve the way we serve the country,” he added.

Public-private partnership

“But — and I have said this so many times — collaboration is key if we want to succeed. We already have partners in the national and local governments, and in the private sector; and we have you who are here today. What we need to do now is to extend this partnership to each and every Filipino,” Aquino said.

The DENR has taken the first step by proposing the observance of Philippine River Day every year on March 22, to increase awareness of campaign to restore and preserve rivers all over the Philippines — from the Pasig River, which is almost at Palace doorsteps, to the Iloilo River.

Unite for rivers

“The commemoration of Philippine River Day will give us a venue to unite our efforts to save our rivers and remind us of our duty to the environment — a duty that must be fulfilled every day,” said Aquino.

One needs only to be aware of problems the rivers face and make small changes in one’s lifestyle so as not to add to the problem, he said.

“It can be as simple as disposing of your waste properly, to prevent the clogging of drainage systems and the pollution of our rivers. It can also be as simple as participating in the programs and projects of your local government units, and civil society organizations — by planting trees, cleaning rivers, and simply abiding by the rules and regulations meant to protect our environment,” he explained.

“The important thing is that each of us does our part — in this endeavor, and in every effort to make the Philippines a better country. I believe we have made a good start,” avowed Aquino.