RIZAL, Philippines – Maningning Creek in the village of Santa Ana in Taytay, Rizal is not easy to access.
After leaving the comfort of a national highway, one must dive headfirst into a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways and dodge sprightly tricycles and exuberant street vendors – signs of colorful village life.
But Maningning Creek, located at the heart of all this energy, has opened itself up not just to the country but to the entire Southeast Asian region.
It now serves as a model for the rehabilitation of waterways, a model to be replicated to save other creeks and rivers in other ASEAN countries.
In March, a group of young community leaders in the Link, Engage, Activate, Develop (LEAD) ASEAN Youth Summit won a $10,000 (P437,100) grant to replicate the success of the Maningning Creek project for other waterways in different parts of Southeast Asia.
Through the group's Streams of Hope Project, the Maningning Creek model is being adopted for waterways in Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and a creek in Cotabato connected to the Agusan Marsh.
Tobit Cruz, a native of Santa Ana (his grandfather was barangay captain in the 80s) and an Ayala Young Leader, is responsible for first bringing the 3-kilometer Taytay creek into the regional spotlight.
As a delegate to the LEAD ASEAN Youth Summit, he shared to his multi-national groupmates how he and his community succeeded in returning dirty, old Maningning Creek to its former glory. (READ: 55 die daily in PH from lack of proper sewerage)
"They got excited. When we wrote our proposal for the Maningning Creek model, we just adjusted the budget for the other ASEAN countries," he told Rappler.
Angat Kabataan ng Taytay President Tobit Cruz (in white) and Vice President Allen Baloloy are proud of the creek they helped rehabilitate
Their project proposal, one of the required outputs of delegates at the end of the summit, impressed organizers Ayala Foundation and the US Embassy. They won the grant.
Now, aside from maintaining Maningning Creek and replicating its success in other countries, Cruz wants to adopt another Taytay waterway called Mahabang Sapa Creek, a tributary of Taytay River and Laguna de Bay.
There are countless creek and river clean-up drives in the country, so what makes Maningning Creek so special?
According to Cruz, it's the high level of participation of Santa Ana locals and the creation of livelihood programs tied to the cleanliness of the creek.
The Maningning experience
Lucy de Leon, a 62-year-old Santa Ana local who lives right beside the waterway still remembers when Maningning Creek lived up to its name, which means, "shining."
"Ang linis niyan, ang linaw. Naliligo pa kami diyan. Tapos napaglalabhan pa namin 'yan nung araw. Tinatamnan namin 'yan ng palay, kangkong, melon," she told Rappler.
(It was very clean and clear. We would swim there and wash our clothes in the water. We would plant rice, kangkong and melons beside the creek.)
Years later, the creek got more polluted and its water turned black. De Leon blames the factories and warehouses that were built further upstream.
When Tropical Storm Ondoy let loose its fury on the village in 2009, floods rose past the height of man and submerged the first level of homes beside the creek.
Photo courtesy of Tobit Cruz
After this traumatic experience, Cruz (who was a 19-year-old student during Ondoy) and his friends decided something had to be done about the filthy creek.
They began writing letters to everyone in the community urging swift action to clean the waterway. (WATCH: Esteros and the river warriors)
In 2012, they were finally able to gather barangay officials, locals, small businesses, big businesses (like SM Taytay) and nongovernmental organizations under one roof.
But the hardest part, said Cruz, was talking to the locals who lived right beside the creek. None of them attended the meeting.
"We had separate consultation sessions with them. We call it kapihan, as in literally, we would have coffee and pan de sal with them and we talked to them about rehabilitating the creek."
But their persistence paid off. Finally, Cruz and his group Angat Kabataan, were able to organize creek clean-ups every 3 months.
Despite their initial cynicism, locals began to participate actively. De Leon, who saw Cruz and his friends cleaning up the creek outside her home, said jokingly she was "guilt-tripped" into helping the young Taytayeños.
Local grocery stores began bringing food to the creek to feed the volunteers. The barangay lent the group its backhoe to haul up heavy debris.
Halves of electric fan covers sourced from local junkshops were attached to long bamboo poles from the barangay to serve as garbage scoopers. Cruz and company nicknamed them "fan-ta-sticks."
Soon, bigger institutions began to take notice. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) sent as many as 400 volunteers.
The Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) donated 100 bamboo seedlings which were planted alongside the creek to prevent soil erosion.
Maningning Creek needed all the help it could get.
"You can already make a house with the amount of trash we got. We got sofas, a maleta (luggage) of clothes, forks, spoons, plates TV, all in the creek," said Cruz.
Photo courtesy of Tobit Cruz
But simply fishing out garbage didn't improve the water quality of the creek.
A church group from Angono gave the volunteers the magic ingredient.
Bokashi balls are fist-sized balls of garden soil, molasses, rice hull (which, in Japanese, is "bokashi") and an effective microorganism solution. They were devised by the Japanese to clean ponds.
The solution contains lactobacillus and other microorganisms that filter out the bad bacteria in dirty water. The garden soil serves as the "house" of the good bacteria where they can multiply. The molasses serve as the food of the good bacteria so they can multiply even faster.
After mixing all these ingredients into a mud ball, the balls are stored in a cool, dry place for at least two weeks until they develop mold. That's when they are ready to be dropped into the water.
Some 3,500 bokashi balls made by the volunteers have been dropped into the creek. The result was visibly cleaner water, elimination of the creek's foul odor and a more solid river floor. Every 6 months, 500 more balls are dropped.
Now, freshwater fish like tilapia thrive in the creek. There are also no more dengue incidents among the households living near the creek, said De Leon.
And the traumatic flooding is no longer as common.
"Dati umaapaw talaga 'yan. Wala nang ulan mga ilang araw na, may baha pa rin. Ngayon hindi na. Basta 'pag tumigil ang ulan, wala nang baha," said De Leon.
(Before it used to overflow. Even when there has been no more rain for days, our houses were still flooded. But now, when the rain stops, the floods subside right away.)
Returning the creek to the community
To ensure the Maningning Creek project carries on even with minimal supervision from Cruz and his group, they crafted livelihood programs around the creek.
A kilometer of vegetable gardens alongside the creek is maintained by 5 to 6 locals employed by the barangay. The money earned by the barangay from selling the vegetables is used to pay for their salaries.
The bamboo plants now thriving alongside the creek produce 20 bamboo seedlings every two months. These seedlings are also sold through the barangay.
But Cruz, who is now a barangay councilor, is developing the project's most ambitious livelihood program yet: selling bokashi balls.
Some 10 to 15 locals, mostly women, are in charge of producing bokashi balls. Rizal Governor Rebecca Ynares is ordering 7,000 balls to rehabilitate Hinulugan Taktak, a deteriorated waterfall which was once a popular tourism destination.
Balls of mud, molasses and good bacteria filter bad bacteria from water
Cruz and his group sell the balls for P10 ($0.23) each but are experimenting with new ways to drive the price down even more. Those interested in buying bokashi balls can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These livelihood programs help weave Maningning Creek into the tapestry of daily life in Santa Ana. No longer just a waterway to be ignored, the creek contributes to locals' incomes and has become a source of pride for the village.
Since the creek was rehabilitated in 2013, it has been used as the venue for a new fluvial parade celebrating the bounty of the creek and the history of the village.
But Cruz says the community achieved more than making Maningning Creek shine again.
"What we consider our greatest accomplishment is people working together. We keep telling them, the creek is a reflection of this community. If the creek is dirty, what does it say about us? If it's clean, it says something about us."
Maningning Creek and the other creeks to be rehabilitated across Southeast Asia are just a few kilometers of the thousands that make up all the river systems in the world.
But there is wisdom in starting small, according to Cruz.
Cleaning big bodies of water like Pasig River, Agusan Marsh and Manila Bay will come to nothing if the smaller creeks leading to them are still dirty. (READ: 'Not much improvement' in Manila Bay water quality)
"The tendency for youth groups is, when we have a big, big dream we tend to be overwhelmed by the work that has to be done and we end up doing nothing because we're scared. We can start small and eventually scale up."
A small creek in Taytay might just change the world. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.