Esteros and the river warriors

MANILA, Philippines - Niño Hebionada is 33 years old and has lived his whole life in Estero de Paco, Manila.

Until recently and pretty much like everyone else, he would dump garbage into the estero -- one of the 47 natural tributaries of the Pasig River -- until he realized the practice had transformed the whole area into a huge toilet.

Hebionada is now a community organizer for the River Warriors, a group of volunteers in charge of cleaning up the storm drains.

Educating informal settlers

As community organizer, Hebionada's job also entails teaching the residents how to properly dispose of their refuse.

Some of them give him a hard time.

"The most difficult part of it all is who people that live around here insult us and have no appreciation for how important it is to keep our environment and the river clean," he told Rappler in Filipino.

Hebionada explained that some neighbors "grew up throwing trash into the estero, so we have to tell them that the should not do it anymore because if the canals and the river are blocked, the floods and diseases will come."

Estero de Paco before the rehabilitation project.

Photo courtesy of PRRC

Most residents grateful

Despite these concerns, most residents of Estero de Paco are now grateful to the River Warriors.

The neighborhood "has changed a lot. Before, garbage was everywhere and the smell was bad. We would usually pass through the other road. It's spacious now, we can breathe air. It was suffocating before," said Jeanette Palomar, 42.

"We were taught to dispose of our garbage properly. We no longer throw our trash in the river, we wait for the garbage truck," she added also in Filipino.

Palomar said "now it would be a shame to throw your garbage anywhere because it is already clean" and revealed she gets very upset when she sees other neighbors polluting the estero, which doesn't flood like it used to before.

During tropical storm Ondoy in 2009, she recalled, the floodwaters reached the second story of their makeshift homes, but just 3 years later, the stream did not even overflow after the last Habagat rains that turned most of Metro Manila into a giant swimming pool.

Estero de Paco today.

Photo courtesy of PRRC

Rehabilitation after Ondoy

The aftermath of Ondoy pushed the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) to speed up their efforts to clean up Estero de Paco, and so far the results are remarkable, according to Faizza Tanggal, media officer for the ABS-CBN Foundation which chairs the PRRC.

"There has been a real difference in terms of flooding (…) A dramatic improvement, really, because there was more rainfall during Habagat than during Ondoy, but here the floodwaters were significantly lower," she said during an interview with Rappler.

However, Tanggal pointed out that Paco is just one of 47 esteros that drain into the Pasig River and much work still needs to be done so these natural tributaries can help contain the floods in the future.

Even if we rehabilitate all of them, the ABS-CBN Foundation spokeswoman explained, "there will still be flooding, but it will subside easier because there is no blockage and the water will flow easier."

Old postcard featuring Estero de Paco.

Photo courtesy of PRRC

ADB support

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) recognized the importance of the Pasig River. In 1991 it committed US$200 million to restoring the waterway back to its splendor circa 1900, when it was compared to the Grand Canal of Venice for its clear water surrounded by patches of lush vegetation in the middle of the city.

That was before the explosive growth of Metro Manila turned the Pasig into the most polluted river in the country and one of the dirtiest in Asia.

Now the goal is to transform a a biologically dead river to Class "C" level -- that which can sustain life —- by 2014.

"The environmental rehabilitation of Estero de Paco will try to get the estero into the original flowing system. We want to reduce the amount of waste and restore the conditions in which it was flowing previously into the Pasig River," said Javier Coloma, an ADB water resource management specialist. - Rappler.com