Published on page A1 of the November 11, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
ONCE the country?s most celebrated waterways, the Pasig River is now one of the world?s most polluted rivers, according to a report launched Thursday by the United Nations Human Development Program (UNDP) in Cape Town, South Africa.
An article in the UNDP report titled, ?Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis,? said that human waste accounts for 70 percent of the pollution load in Pasig River today.
But that?s old news. According to a Department of Environment and Natural Resources 2003 pollution report, the Pasig River, along with four other waterways in Metro Manila?the Marikina, San Juan, Navotas-Malabon-Tenejeros-Tullahan and Parañaque rivers?was biologically dead.
Nevertheless, 150 tons of domestic waste and 75 tons of industrial waste were still being dumped every day in the river, the DENR said.
The Pasig River was once compared to the Grand Canal of Venice before the years of large-scale development. It now runs through 11 of the 17 cities and municipalities in Metro Manila: Caloocan, Makati, Marikina, Mandaluyong, Manila, Quezon City, San Juan, Taguig, Pateros, Pasay and Pasig.
The UNDP report said the ?problem is that sludge treatment and disposal facilities are rare,? leading to the indiscriminate disposal of wastes into the river.
This had ill-effects on health, as one-third of all illness in Manila was water-related.
?The crisis in water and sanitation is?above all?a crisis for the poor,? the UNDP report said. ?People living in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia; Manila, Philippines, and Nairobi, Kenya, pay 5 to 10 times more for water per unit than those in high-income areas of their own cities, and more than consumers pay in London or New York.?
No coherent strategy
Projects aimed at cleaning the river had not gone far ?partly because of the failure of the government and water providers to develop a coherent strategy for tackling Manila?s sanitation crisis,? the report said.
In solving problems like this, ?community-led initiatives are important, but they are not a substitute for government action?and private financing by poor households is not a substitute for public finance and service provision,? the report added.
The global view is just as grim.
The UNDP report highlighted how more than 2.6 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation and dirty water claims more lives than AIDS or conflicts.
?We cannot speak about development while people subsist without clean water and proper sanitation and thus become exposed to numerous preventable diseases,? President Thabo Mbeki told dignitaries at the launch of the UNDP report in Cape Town.
?We have a duty to fight against domestic and global apartheid in terms of access to water,? he said, referring to South Africa?s former racially discriminatory system of government.
The report?s chief author Kevin Watkins said 1.8 million children die each year from diarrhea brought on by dirty water.
?This is five times the number of children dying from HIV/AIDS,? Watkins told reporters.
?What is clear is that clean water and sanitation is just about the most important vaccine for improving public health and economic growth.?
The report discussed the public health situation in slum areas of Africa, including Kibera in Nairobi where rudimentary sanitation sees many residents resorting to ?flying toilets.?
?People defecate in plastic bags and throw them into the street because they have no other option,? explained Watkins.
Basic human right
Lack of water and sanitation keeps children out of school, either because of illness or because they?re forced to walk long distances to collect household water.
Aside from the human costs and productivity losses, economic growth is stunted to the extent that it outweighs international aid.
UNDP administrator Kermal Dervis said the global water crisis ?is not one of physical scarcity, but one rooted in poverty and inequality. The crisis ... is the widespread violation of the basic human right to water,? he said at the launch.
Ill-health associated with water deficits undermined productivity and economic growth and entrenched poverty, said the UNDP report.
Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands said ?the primary cause of the water crisis ... is a shortage not of water but of political commitment and good water management.?
Some $10 billion (P500 billion) would be required every year to achieve the UN?s millennium development goals for drinking water and sanitation, he said, underlining that it was ?only a fraction? of the aggregate world gross domestic product of $43 trillion.
?So perhaps the issue is not that we lack the money. What it really comes down to is political and social commitment.?
The report warned that access to water would likely become ever more problematic as a result of global warming.
Lawrence de Guzman, Inquirer Research and Agence France-Presse