Metro creeks: Less trash, but water quality not improving

Pia Ranada

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Metro creeks: Less trash, but water quality not improving
In Metro Manila, 70% of households depend on septic tanks, which may leak human waste into underground aquifers, or don't have septic tanks and get rid of waste unregulated means

MANILA, Philippines  On the surface, Metro Manila creeks and rivers appear cleaner, but the water itself is still filthy.

This was the update given by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) during a presentation on the status of the Metro Manila Adopt-an-Estero or Waterbody Program on Wednesday, September 24.

“Little by little, the trash being thrown into our waterways is lessening. However, based on the results of our BOD (biological oxygen demand) monitoring, we are still unable to meet the 7 milligrams per liter standard,” said Diosdado Doctor, chief of Environmental Monitoring at the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) National Capital Region.

BOD is the amount of dissolved oxygen that anaerobic organisms in a body of water need in order to break down organic material in the water. It is an indicator of water quality: the lower the BOD, the cleaner the body of water, Doctor explained.

But as of May 2014, the BOD across all 27 waterways in Metro Manila covered by the program ranged from 81 mg per liter to 240 mg per liter  still way beyond the 7 mg per liter standard.

For some waterways, the BOD increased throughout the year. In Tullahan River, for instance, the BOD was 63 mg per liter in the first quarter of 2014 but it went up to 73 mg per liter in the second quarter.

Doctor described the BOD levels from 2011 to 2014 as “erratic.”

For the same river, for example, the average BOD in 2011 was 32 mg per liter. Come 2013, the figure was at 128 mg per liter.

The fluctuating, almost logic-defying movement of the water quality levels is due to the just as erratic rains in the mega city, said Doctor.

“When the dry season is long then it suddenly rains, there is a flushing effect which causes all the waste to flow to the river system. This increases [the BOD].When continuous rain occurs, the BOD suddenly goes down because of dilution,” he explained.

That’s why typically, BOD lowers during the rainy season then hikes up again in the summer.

Only 20% to 30% of Metro Manila homes are connected to sewerage lines of water concessionnaires.


A flood of problems

The main reason for the still alarmingly low water quality of Metro Manila rivers and creeks is the untreated residential waste that flows directly into the waterways, Doctor told reporters. (READ: 55 die daily in PH from lack of proper sewerage)

Only 20 to 30% of Metro Manila residents are connected to sewerage lines of water concessionnaires Manila Water and Maynilad Water Services.

This means that the other 70% depend on septic tanks, which may leak human waste into underground aquifers. Worse, some may not even have septic tanks and get rid of their waste through informal, unregulated means.

Informal settlers who live right beside or above waterways pose another problem. Lack of awareness and discipline means that many of them throw their trash or defecate directly into the water.

The way forward, at least for the legal residents, is to compel water concessionaires to achieve 100% connection of households to sewerage lines, something they are required to do by law anyway, said Doctor.

The DENR has enforced a deadline for concessionaires to achieve 100% coverage of Metro Manila by 2035.

Solving the informal settler problem is trickier.

Even if, by law, no structures are allowed in the 3-meter easement beside waterways, local government units hesitate to force informal settlers to leave out of fear of appearing “anti-poor” and losing votes in the next elections, said Doctor.

Best practices

Despite the drawbacks, there were also some achievements under the Adopt-an-Estero or Waterway project.

Begun in 2010 after Tropical Storm Ondoy, the DENR project invites companies, NGOs, and schools to team up with local governments to clean a specific creek or river.

Even if a lot of rain fell last week, the floods subsided quickly, based on news reports. This is one of the benefits of our activities.

– Jonas Leones, DENR-EMB OIC-Director


Out of the more than 240 waterways in the mega city, only 27 or 11% are covered by the program.

Making creeks or rivers more visually attractive is a bigger achievement than it sounds, said DENR Senior Environmental Management Specialist Marivic Quides. (READ: Taytay creek is water rehab model for Southeast Asia)

“Visual impact is big. When a creek looks cleaner, it means at least there is less solid garbage,” she told reporters in a mix of English and Filipino.

DENR-EMB Director Jonas Leones said the benefits of less garbage-clogged waterways were evident in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Mario which hit Metro Manila last September 19.

“Even if a lot of rain fell last week, the floods subsided quickly, based on news reports. This is one of the benefits of our activities,” he said.

There were also plenty of best practices and model waterway “adoptions” that spell hope for the project.

For instance, the local government and private partners who jointly adopted Concepcion Creek in Marikina City have gone beyond the required monthly clean-up by making their clean-ups once a week.

The Marikina City government is also strict with both illegal and formal settlers living within the 3 meter easement along the creek. After the 3rd warning, a team goes to the houses and begins demolition.

A local paint company that partnered with local governments in Valenzuela City to clean up Lingunan Creek has gone beyond scooping out trash from the waterway.

It holds clean-up drives, teaches segregation through an information campaign, and has begun a community beautification program, said Christopher Ilumin of March Resources and Manufacturing Corporation.

What spells the difference between success and failure for each waterway adoption?

Quides said: “It’s really barangay participation. The partnerships that are not sustained are those in which the barangay does not want to get involved. The locals have to embrace the project and have a sense of ownership to cleaning up their creek.” –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.