The challenge of reviving the Marilao River

The Inbox

By Eimor Santos
Photos and video by Vincent Go
VERA Files

Life can be restored at the Marilao-Meycauayan-Obando river system (MMORS). But it will take many, many years. At the least, ten years.  Maybe a hundred years to restore it to its pristine state, the environment activist group Greenpeace said.

As of now, Greenpeace said the MMORS (also known as the Marilao River system) is biologically dead --- it has zero levels of oxygen thus life can hardly thrive in it.  It is black and methane gas still bubbles up from the water.

In 2007, the New York City-based environment group Blacksmith Institute included MMORS in the "Dirty 30", a list of the most polluted places in the world. It found the MMORS highly contaminated with wastes and heavy metals coming from industries, such as lead acid battery recycling, gold and precious metals refining, jewelry making, and open dumpsites.

The stigma attached to the "Dirty 30" tag has not moved the polluters to change their ways.

Even Marilao Mayor Epifanio Guillermo, who has initiated clean-up drives to save the river,  is losing hope that he will be able to see it revived during his term in office, or maybe even in his lifetime.

Greenpeace toxics campaigner Beau Baconguis said there can still be "life after death" for the MMORS if the government could muster the political will to stop the sources of pollution which are the factories.

Once that is done, the MMORS has a natural way of cleaning itself, she said.

Guillermo recalled the good old days of the river, which used to be his source of income as a fisherman. He said he could even see the shrimps and fish underwater. "Pag ako'y nauuhaw sa ilalim, dun ako umiinom, ganyan kalinis yan (If I felt thirsty I even drink from the river. It was that clean)," the 80-year-old mayor who grew up by the riverbanks related.

Juan Santiago, a resident of Marilao for 74 years now, agrees with Greenpeace that the only way to clean the river is by removing all industries that surround it, including tanneries and piggeries. But he said this seems like an impossible feat.

Guillermo said the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is allotting P 1.9 billion for the dredging of the heavily silted river system.  But Greenpeace said no matter how much money, time and effort the government puts in cleaning the river, these will not suffice as long as the firms that are sources of pollution continue their bad practices.

But since it is not possible to close down every industry in the MMORS vicinity, Baconguis suggested that industries should be encouraged to use nontoxic materials in its production instead. She also said the government must focus on taking action against these polluters that dump toxic wastes in the river.

What is needed is to change the people's mindset that there's nothing that they can do to correct the situation.  "Kailangang baguhin yung pananaw ng mga tao na wala silang magagawa,"Baconguis said.

She remembered the Daraitan River in Tanay, Rizal which the Dumagats have been protecting from any industry. The river remains immaculate and a must-visit for anyone who wants to take a break from the pollution in Metro Manila.

Bulacan's Save Biak-na-Bato campaign is one success story that can serve as an inspiration for those losing hope in reviving the Marilao River like Mayor Guillermo and Santiago.

The Biak-na-Bato in San Miguel, Bulacan served as refuge to the Katipuneros during the Spanish regime, but a hundred years later it faced grave threats to its historical and ecological attractions.

That was when a mining company named Rosemoor Mining and Development Corp. started quarrying the P 121 billion worth of exotic tea rose marble that can be mined in the supposedly reserved areas. Six other companies were then seeking mining permits, too.

Environment experts warned that the continued operations would desecrate the fragile park, especially its natural springs which form part of the Angat watershed that supplies water for Metro Manila.

After six years of arduous campaign by concerned citizens and personalities, the quarrying operations were stopped and the Biak-na-Bato again became the protected national park it used to be.

Today tourists come to Biak-na-Bato everyday to wonder at its 100 caves and bird sanctuaries and bathe in its flowing waters.

Biak-na-Bato has proven that saving nature can be done; it is just a matter of the residents taking up the challenge. The people of  Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando can very well do the same.

(The author is a journalism student of the University of the Philippines who is writing for VERA Files as part of her internship. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")