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Dexter Opiana was in the middle of a clean-up operation in Manila when he saw the news of the Pasig River bagging the first Asia RiverPrize award. He was scrolling through Facebook, waiting for status reports from his team of River Warriors scattered in different clean-up sites across the city.
Opiana couldn’t help the toothy smile that escaped his face when he saw his colleagues from the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) carrying the silver trophy awarded by the International River Foundation. Not for the first time, he felt proud to be a River Warrior.
For a small, low-budget commission in a third-world country, praise and recognition from the international community come few and far between. But for the River Warriors, who are almost never recognized for the hard work that they do, the award was every bit their accomplishment, too. It was a long-awaited and, more importantly, long-deserved nod to their tireless efforts.
One of the most iconic waterways in Metro Manila, the Pasig River once served as a vital route for trade and transportation in the early days of the Philippines. However, war and rapid urbanization caused the degeneration of the Pasig River, which was declared biologically dead by the 1970s. Once regarded as a cradle of Philippine civilization, the Pasig River fell into decay and ruin, unable to sustain life.
Angelita “Angie” Imperio was only 11 years old when water hyacinths started to grow at alarming rates across the Pasig River. She had just moved in with an aunt who lived along Estero de Santibañez, one of the smaller waterways found within Manila. The shanties were the first to make their mark, crowding like wild mushrooms along the estero. Soon after, the water hyacinths invaded the river, forming a carpet of green moss. “Nalungkot ako,” Imperio said. “Sabi ko, balang araw, malilinis ko ’to.”
Today, Imperio belongs to a group called the River Warriors, a band of men and women who defend the Pasig River and its connecting esteros from agents of pollution. Imperio, now 52, has been a River Warrior for four years, though she has been an active volunteer of clean-up operations in Estero de Santibañez since 2007. As a volunteer, she would manually pick, scoop, or dredge up garbage floating in the water or buried along the riverbank, but since 2015, this has been her full-time job.
In 1973, the national government decreed that the Pasig River was to be restored to its optimum state and developed for recreational and economic purposes. However, things scarcely moved in the years that followed. Since rehabilitating the Pasig River required coordinating with several public and private stakeholders, it was difficult to move forward without the leadership of a specific agency. With the founding of PRRC in 1999, efforts were streamlined and the project gained further ground.
From 1999 to 2009, the PRRC partnered with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to pursue The Pasig River Environmental Management and Rehabilitation Sector Development Program (PAREMAR), which aimed to develop the riverbanks and restore life to the Pasig River by 2014. However, due to political instability in the early 2000s, as well as difficulty in coordinating between government agencies, PRRC failed to deliver on its promises, and pushed back further on its deadline.
By 2009, 36 years had passed since the Pasig River’s rehabilitation became a national goal. Ten years had also passed since PRRC began its operations, yet things seemed to be continuing at a snail’s pace.
Where were we going wrong? What needed to change?
Once regarded as a cradle of Philippine civilization, the Pasig River fell into decay and ruin, unable to sustain life.
To properly rehabilitate the Pasig River, there needed to be a shift in perspective. It didn’t matter how frequent the clean-ups were or how advanced the technology used was to clean the main river—if pollution along the 47 interconnected esteros that ran through Metro Manila was not addressed, these efforts would remain futile. The secret to successful rehabilitation was to halt pollution from the root.
Enter the River Warriors.
On a sunny Friday morning, we met Opiana behind Paco Church, at a narrow street lined with stalls selling an odd mix of wares: local produce, fresh seafood, and dry goods, among others. Opiana is a River Warrior. He is a small man with bright eyes, coffee skin, and crew cut hair. He often rode a motorcycle to move from one clean-up site to another, and always had a box of cigarettes inside a black fanny pack about him.
I first met Opiana and his superior, Nino Gutierrez (Sir Onin, as he prefers to be called), at the headquarters of PRRC, where we spoke of their work. Before joining the River Warriors, Opiana was a clean-up volunteer at Estero de Binondo. Now, he ranks second-in-command on the team, a responsibility he holds proudly. On that day, he took us to the different esteros on the River Warriors’ to-do list; the first was Estero de Paco, a two-kilometer river at the heart of Manila City.
The River Warriors are in charge of conducting daily clean-ups along the different esteros connected to the Pasig River. In each of these esteros, two or more River Warriors are usually assigned to sweep the riverbanks and scoop up garbage found in the water. Aside from these clean-ups, they also have special operations, where they concentrate their efforts in areas requested by an institution or a local barangay. Today’s clean-up was requested by Paco Catholic School, which loomed just over the other side of the river.
It was only fitting that we began our journey at Estero de Paco, the birthplace of the first River Warriors. When PRRC decided to prioritize the rehabilitation of the different tributaries, Estero de Paco became its pilot project, as it was the worst-polluted tributary in Manila at the time. Gina Lopez, then-chairperson of PRRC and the ABS-CBN Foundation, encouraged the residents of Estero de Paco to volunteer in clean-up operations. With assistance from the local community, ADB, and other government agencies, PRRC managed to successfully rehabilitate the Paco River and the wet market beside it by 2012.
To the delight of its residents, Estero de Paco had been fully transformed into a walkable, breathable, riverside park. The first batch of these volunteers was eventually absorbed by PRRC, and given proper rescue and first-aid training by the AFP and PNP. By the end of the two-day training, they were officially knighted as River Warriors.
It was around 10:30 a.m. when we got to Estero de Paco, and the River Warriors were on their second break. They sat along the pavement, resting under the cool shade of the trees. They’d started at 6 a.m. to avoid the sweltering heat of the noonday sun. There were around 12 of them, a healthy mix of men and women who looked around their late 40s to early 50s.
We crossed a narrow steel bridge to get to where the River Warriors were, which offered me a good view of the estero. Surprisingly, the water flowed easily, and though it looked cloudy, there were no unwanted objects floating around. The rough patches of sunlight that managed to pierce through the leafy canopy lent an air of mystery to the place, and the breeze had but the faintest scent of sewage.
That’s not all of them, Opiana reminded me, as we made our way over to the team. When I asked where the others were, he told me that some had been deployed to Quiapo and the Binondo area (Ongpin) to work on special operations under the request of the local barangays. I asked if that meant some riverbanks were left unmanned. It happens, he shrugged. It’s unavoidable.
As it stands, there are 47 River Warriors under the leadership of Opiana and Gutierrez; about a 1:1 ratio of River Warriors to the esteros of the Pasig River. While there are other groups under PRRC, the River Warriors are the only ones tasked to clean the waterways, spending days, weeks, and even months on a clean-up operation for at least seven hours a day. Once the areas have been swept clean, the responsibility of maintaining the esteros is then passed to the respective barangays.
Unfortunately, pollution still finds its way back into the rivers due to careless residents or poor enforcement of solid waste management programs by LGUs. It’s this oversight that becomes an added burden to the River Warriors, who would drop by once in a while to check up on the esteros they’ve diligently cleaned, only to be sorely disappointed.
The secret to successful rehabilitation was to halt pollution from the root.
At some point, Opiana excused himself to smoke. I recognized Angie Imperio sitting with the ladies on one side of the pavement. I invited myself into their little circle, and Imperio introduced me to the woman beside her, Gloria Hernandez. She is the leader of the River Angels, a self-dubbed all-girl group that’s also part of the elite team. “Angel po kasi kami ng katubigan,” Hernandez joked when I asked why the team was named that way.
Hernandez was among the original River Warriors of Estero de Paco in 2009. Everyone in her family was once a River Warrior, but now she was the only one left doing the job full-time. “Ayoko nang umalis, napamahal na ako dito,” she said sincerely, when I asked why she’d stayed.
This sentiment is not new among the River Warriors; there was always something to speak fondly of with their job despite the numerous hazards they face, like slipping on the floater or getting bruises and cuts. It’s all part of the River Warrior experience. As Guttierez once said, “Hindi ka River Warrior pag ’di ka pa nalalaglag.”
In spite of these dangers, the River Warriors have grown to care for their small family and be proud of the work they do. In that half-day I’d spent with them, it was easy to see why working on special operations was their favorite part of the job. Spending time with each other is a rare activity, but when they do, it’s all a fun ruckus: jokes are made, meals are shared, and most importantly, people get to share their frustrations and support one another.
Most of all, what keeps the River Warriors on the job is their reason for doing the work. This reason isn’t bound by any kind of gain, but a sense of duty—to one’s environment, to one’s people, and to the generations to come. Much like the Filipino warriors of old, they are true, courageous, and steadfast in their mission to protect our environment, whatever the cost. As their motto goes, “Why wait until tomorrow, what can be done today?”
Most of all, what keeps the River Warriors on the job is their reason for doing the work. This reason isn’t bound by any kind of gain, but a sense of duty—to one’s environment, to one’s people, and to the generations to come.
Cooperation from the public and private sectors play a huge part in cleaning up the Pasig River. From the grassroots level, it starts with being aware of how one’s actions can impact the environment. Every first and last Sunday of the month, Imperio holds clean-up activities for the children of Estero de Santibañez, where they help her sweep the pavement or scoop trash from the water.
Community organizers from PRRC’s Information Division go door-to-door in barangays to teach families proper waste segregation, while PRRC officials hold government inter-committee meetings to present their plans and accomplishments, and to remind public officials of their duties and responsibilities. Under the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, every LGU is required to enact a solid waste management system, including proper segregation of waste at the source. But while laws are in place, their implementation continues to be poor, and this remains the River Warriors’ biggest source of frustration.
The Pasig River still has a long way to go, and its rehabilitation requires the cooperation of a lot of stakeholders: the public, local governments, even private institutions. In 2018, together with UP Planades, PRRC finished the latest master plan for the Pasig River, setting rehabilitation to be completed by 2032—over half a century since the work first started. The new strategy covers a lot of bases, all working towards restoring the Pasig River as a place of thriving economic and cultural activity. However, these plans won’t succeed unless everyone does their part.
The River Warriors are proof that no task is too gargantuan to tackle as long as we each do our part. No one institution or group of people can solve this problem alone; like any other fight for change, it’s a long and uphill battle, riddled with setbacks and challenges. In spite of the hardships they face, the River Warriors are willing to do the work. All they ask is that we do our part, and help them in the ways we can.
NOTE: On November 14, 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte issued Executive Order No. 93, effectively disestablishing the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. Originally published in GRID Volume 08 as "Tides of Change", this article was produced in February 2019.