MANILA, Philippines?Efren Villon remembers it well?children playing as their mothers rinsed the laundry upstream, various kinds of fish visible in the water so clear that even the colors of fluttering butterflies were reflected on the surface.
Sadly, that idyllic scene is no more. Now, all that Villon?s grandchildren get to see of the famous Hinulugang Taktak in Antipolo City just 30 minutes away from Metro Manila is dirty water and assorted garbage.
But hope is flowing: The city government and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) are working with private groups for a P100-million makeover aimed at restoring the glory of the Philippines? most famous waterfall in 10-20 years.
The strategy? Making people aware.
Hinulugang Taktak is one of two attractions in Antipolo, Rizal (the other being the Antipolo Cathedral). It is the subject of a bouncy native song, making it familiar even to those living in other parts of the country.
In 1952, then President Elpidio Quirino declared the 3.2-hectare Hinulugang Taktak a recreation area. The National Historical Institute proclaimed it a national historical shrine in 1990, turning it into a national park under the DENR Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
?It was very beautiful,? says Villon, 73, whose family lives a few meters from the river that drains into Hinulugang Taktak. ?People used to come here in droves.?
The story of Villon is about the classic search for a better life.
At 20, he left his small town in Catanduanes to find work in Manila. He found himself living in Antipolo, just beside Hinulugang Taktak.
?The water was very clean and we would swim in this river,? Villon recalls.
He opened a little store and during weekends, he usually sold more than 200 bottles of soda to people flocking to the waterfall, mostly women carrying their laundry.
The story of Hinulugang Taktak is also classic?a national treasure that has fallen prey to rapid urbanization.
Illegal settlers have mushroomed on the riverbanks. According to Melrose Dungo, who was appointed by the city government to oversee the rehabilitation project, some 500 families have built shanties on the stretch leading to the waterfall alone.
Raw waste and sewage from these illegal settlers and from some drainage systems in the city, including trash, now flow into the river and its tributaries.
Where bell was dropped
Officials say the waterfall got its name?which means ?where the bell was dropped??during the Spanish era. The story goes that villagers got so annoyed by the harsh clanging of the church bell that the priest decided to drop it into the stream.
Now, it?s a place where people drop all sorts of garbage.
Hinulugang Taktak is still surrounded by rich vegetation and huge trees. But butterflies now hover over soiled diapers, plastic bottles and cups, discarded slippers, toys and bags, even the corpses of small animals.
The basin where the water falls appears like a giant washing machine, with thick foam and soap suds. The area reeks of detergent diluted in dirty water.
It is far from the picturesque waterfall that, according to historical accounts, national hero Jose Rizal used to visit, says provincial board member Ronald Barcena.
The national park still draws visitors (the number peaks at 100 a day during holidays). They come, not to view the waterfall, but mainly to use the swimming pool, says Antonio Diwa, the park superintendent and the city?s environment and natural resources officer.
Diwa was assigned to the park only in March and last saw the waterfall in its pristine state in 1977. He was then a forestry student at the University of the Philippines Los Bańos.
?There were still many children playing in the water,? Diwa recalls. ?The waterfall was very clean.?
Last year, then Mayor Vic Sumulong initiated efforts to rehabilitate the park.
Because the park was then under the DENR, Sumulong worked to have it returned to the jurisdiction of Antipolo, or at least to have the city as co-manager.
Says his nephew, Councilor LJ Sumulong: ?It was one of his flagship projects. Since Antipolo became a city in 1998, we [have become] more capable financially, and we now have the technical expertise [to preserve the park].?
Mayor Sumulong died in January. His successor, Mayor Danilo Leybe, continued his effort and four months later, the DENR and the Antipolo government agreed to not only co-manage but also rehabilitate the park.
The rehabilitation project was finally launched early this month.
Waste management consultant Vince Hizon, a former basketball player, is helping popularize the cleanup drive after having worked to rehabilitate the city dump.
?I want to use the influence I gained a little bit during my playing days in a positive way,? says Hizon.
The water that drains into Hinulugang Taktak ultimately ends up in the Pasig River. Adds Hizon: ?If we don?t do something at the source, we will always have a problem downstream.?
Hizon?s wife Patricia, who is assisting in the project, laments that the Philippines is running out of good parks.
Having grown up in Canada, she fondly recalls the times when her parents took her to the Niagara Falls.
?Here, I am sad that I cannot give that [experience] to my children,? she says.
The physical renovation of the park, which is complete with benches and cottages, has begun.
Workers regularly scoop garbage from the water basin, but it is clear that the cleanup requires, not just changing iron sheets and repainting stairs, but also changing people?s attitudes.
Dungo, the appointed project head, says that ways to clean up the water are being studied?to put up fences along the river, to divert the dirty water and use artificial water for the waterfall, or to set up a filter to clean the water before it drains into the waterfall.
But Dungo acknowledges that these ways mean tolerating those who throw garbage upstream. Thus, she says, relocating the illegal settlers is also being planned.
More importantly, awareness about the cleanup is being pushed (the website www.hinulugangtaktak.com has been put up).
The city government has pledged P30 million for the cleanup, and the DENR, another P30 million.
The Hinulugang Taktak National Park Foundation, which will raise funds from private donors, will soon be launched.
Hizon says regularly cleaning up the water basin will ultimately be futile because uninformed and unaware people will continue to throw garbage.
He says the goal is to make people proud of having a clean Hinulugang Taktak.
?We want to make people realize the importance of Hinulugang Taktak,? Hizon says. ?We want them to realize that saving it is everybody?s responsibility.?