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In Manila's esteros, water and garbage vie for space


You could smell the stench meters away. It came from a black sea of empty food packs and all kinds of household waste imaginable — and I was among dozens of people heading toward it. The people, residents of Barangay Cupang in Muntinlupa City, were armed with boots, walis tingting, and sacks as they headed toward an estero that was part of Palico Creek.
Volunteers brave the stench and toxic water to collect rubbish from Manila's waterways. The "Adopt-an-Estero" program of the DENR and local government units aims to clean up about 400 esteros in Metro Manila. Kimberlie Refuerzo
It was a hot Thursday morning in early June, but the 100 or so volunteers led by barangay captain Celso Dioko were bent on wading through the dark, murky waters of the estero to clean it up. The rainy season was fast approaching and, according to Dioko, the residents didn't want a repeat of what they experienced during Ondoy, when flooding in the neighborhood rose to their waists because water from the rain couldn't flow in the esteros as mounds of garbage clogged the waterways. Using long bamboo sticks with an old electric fan part attached to one end, a few of the volunteers went down the estero to scoop up garbage that had caused the water to blacken and cease flowing. Another set of volunteers would shovel the collected garbage into sacks, while a few others would bring the sacks to a waiting truck that would transport the garbage to a sanitary landfill. They weren't being paid for their services. According to Dioko, they braved the dark, smelly estero waters all for a steaming bowl of arroz caldo. The group effort was part of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources' "Adopt-an-Estero" program, where the DENR partners with private companies and local government units in cleaning up esteros in the metro. There are around 400 esteros in Metro Manila. The program is expected to help in the Manila Bay clean-up, which the Supreme Court ordered last March. All estero water in Manila eventually ends up in the bay. Under the program, local government units provide manpower, the DENR provides technical assistance in determining water quality and the like, while private companies help finance the clean-ups. According to DENR Secretary Ramon Paje, the program was "intended to rally the private sector to help us in cleaning up the esteros, rivers, and creeks in Metro Manila and other urban centers in the Philippines." "To clean up the rivers it will take us billions and billions of pesos. We don't have the funds now," Paje said. Palico Creek is only one of hundreds of esteros in the metro where water no longer flows as freely as they should because mounds of garbage block the way. The state of the metro's esteros is lamentable, as prominent urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. said that "elsewhere in the world, the waterfront is a front door of development." In many cases, informal settlers have built homes along the banks of esteros, further diminishing the space for water to flow, and ultimately causing flooding in nearby areas during the stormy season as what happened when Ondoy struck in late 2009. But for grandma Julieta Fontalba, one of the many informal settlers along Estero de San Lorenzo in Manila City, building their homes along the estero's banks does not cause any damage. She and her family of a dozen—consisting of children and grandchildren—have been staying along the bank for over 30 years. According to her, the wide layer of garbage that covered part of the estero's waters wasn't their doing, because the garbage only flowed from the other side of the estero. "Hindi naman kami nagtatapon diyan. Matagal na kami dito, di na kami nagtatapon talaga lalo na ng malaking basura (We no longer throw garbage there. We've been here a long time, we no longer throw garbage there, especially not the big ones)," she explained, adding that they actually clean up the estero every Sunday. Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) district operation manager Sevideo Abello said the government is aware that the presence of informal settlers along the banks of waterways lessen the space for water to flow. But it's not that easy to drive them away, he said. "Namomonitor natin pero di naman natin napapaalis eh kasi marami namang factors (We monitor them but we can't make drive them away because there are many factors)," he said. "Unang una wala tayong mapaglagyan sa kanila, yung kahirapan sinasabi nga nila (First of all we have nowhere to transfer them. There's the poverty issue)," said Abello, adding that it also takes a lot of "political will" to drive away the informal settlers. The metro's estero woes do not end with piles of garbage and informal settlers. Some esteros are almost "missing," as they are cut off or blocked by establishments built directly in it. One such case is Estero de Alix in Legarda in Manila City, where the construction of a condominium is supposedly blocking the flow of water to the adjacent Estero de San Miguel. Manila city engineer Armando Andres said they are investigating how some private commercial structures were built right in esteros, which are supposed to be public property. "Ito nga yung pinapaimbestigahan namin, kinukuha namin, tinetrace namin kung papano napatituluhan itong mga dried up esteros (This is what we're investigating, we're trying to trace how some were able to obtain titles to dried up esteros)," he said. Right now, the DENR is focused on enforcing existing laws, particularly those pertaining to solid waste management, to preserve what's left of the esteros. Under Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, "littering, throwing, dumping of waste matters in public places, such as roads, sidewalks, canals, esteros or parks, and establishment, or causing or permitting the same" is prohibited. Those who are proven to have violated the said provision will be made to pay a fine of P300 to P1,000 or render one day to 15 days of community service. Paje said the goal is to stop the public from treating esteros like their personal trash bins. "If only we can stop dumping, wala tayong lilinisin (we won't have to clean anything)," he said. Added the environment secretary: "If we cannot stop dumping, littering, throwing garbage unbridled, magiging basurero lang tayo ng bayan (we'll just be the public's garbage collector)." Jam Sisante is a news correspondent for GMA News. This report was based on a TV story she reported for Brigada, "Kuwentong Estero," which aired on June 6. The producer was Bryan Brazil and the researcher was Kimberlie Refuerzo. -- HS, GMA News