Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, according to her short overview of Quiapo's history, Margarita de los Reyes-Cojuangco writes that the inextricably linked esteros of Manila gave the city the claim of being an "Oriental Venice."

But I am one of those who now ask the question, "What happened?"

According to the essay, The Changes Through Time in Quiapo's Esteros by William E. Reynolds and Evelyn J. Caballero (Quiapo: Heart of Manila, edited by Fernando Nakpil Zialcita), there is a diverse database from which to draw the answer to the question "What happened?" This is comprised of historical documents dating from the Spanish period, magazine articles and professional papers, maps from the Spanish period to the present, interviews with Quiapo residents, and data on the pollution of esteros.

Esteros are the broadened seaward end or extension of a river. They contain a mixture of fresh water from the river and salt water from the sea, and their water levels rise and fall with the tide. Throughout Manila's history, some thirty-five esteros totalling about twenty-one kilometers have been flowing into or have been associated with the Pasig River.

Produce from the farms of the suburbs accessible via the waterways was brought to Divisoria on boats, such as bancas and cascos that plied the esteros (which are now replaced by pedicabs and kuligligs that compete with other motor vehicles on the city's already congested streets).

In Noli Me Tangere, Jose Rizal wrote that the esteros served as bath, sewer, means of transportation, as well as for laundry and fishing -- "and even drinking water, if the Chinese water carrier found it convenient."

Historical records support Rizal's observations. They indicate that, indeed, during the Spanish era, practically all human refuse, garbage, and manufacturing wastes generated in the area found their way into the esteros. Obviously, the Spanish government was already burdened by this problem.

Spanish doctors, on the other hand, correlated many diseases with the amount of garbage and refuse being dumped into the esteros. Reports of epidemic had taken place, especially during the dry season when the water level was very low, exposing the bottom of the esteros. Medical authorities attributed the raging smallpox epidemic in Manila to the miasmas released by the water and mud in the esteros that were in the state of putrefaction.

The Spanish government developed a public sewer system, though limited in scope, that crisscrossed some of the more densely populated areas. However, liquid easily escaped through the loose slabs of stone that made up the drains. Also, a large number of drains from private houses emptied directly into the esteros. These rendered the esteros a serious health hazard.

Many programs were created by the Spanish government to improve the estero system, but insufficient funding prevented the construction of an underground sewer system. Unfortunately, the esteros were the only way to keep the city of Mania clean. After the Philippine Revolution, the American colonial government did what it could to correct this growing problem.

The esteros are a natural component of Manila. Before the area was heavily populated, the tides and seasonal changes refreshed the natural environment. When Manila became a major city, esteros acquired new uses. They became a means of transportation, communication, and regrettably, waste disposal.

Hence the people of Manila killed the city's estero system.

To date, the problem goes unresolved. As a Manila Times editorial has pointed out last September:

What little remains of canals or esteros will soon fade into memory. Eighty percent of esteros in Metro Manila, all bearing historic names, have drowned in human and commercial waste or taken over by squatters or small businesses.

Residents and transients have transformed our rivers, lakes, bays and canals into their personal toilet or kitchen sink. Squatters living on the riverbanks, coastal walls and lakeshores have no qualms throwing personal and family trash into waterways.

Most factories, plants, industrial and commercial establishments treat our rivers and lakes as an extension of their business activity.

The government, for decades, has talked a lot about rescuing the Pasig River and Manila Bay—to name two bodies of waters—and has rehabilitated them in fits and starts, with negligible results.

But nonetheless, despite the great damage we had created to our canal system, I am also one of those who ask, "Can we still fully rehabilitate our esteros and perhaps, make Manila the Oriental Venice as it once was?"


posted by Señor Enrique at 8:39 AM


Blogger nutart said...

Thank you for that very interesting detail about garbage disposals and esteros, Eric! I thought it all boils down to excessive dependency on plastics...and of course, the way it is being disposed of.
i also noticed that people tend to insist on living near waters and roads. very accessible and with most Pinoys' keen preponderance to being near any mode of transportation rather than walking or long travels to work also cause a lot of squatting in urban areas.

Politically, squatter areas are vote-rich areas so too many compromises are transacted between political honchos and politically astute "poor" people. There's too much of the "poor" mentality!

January 15, 2008 9:35 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the resurrection of Pasig River with the use of Japanese technology can extend up to the esteros. Crossing my fingers for this.

This is a very enlightening post on the esteros, Eric. It actually eliminates my question on why you seem to be featuring here, only the nice and pretty aspects of Manila. Nonetheless, for me - Manila will always be a beautiful and alluring city.

Thanks. Learned a lot. :)

January 15, 2008 10:16 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good write-up about Manila's estero system. You're good!

But as to... "Can we still fully rehabilitate our esteros and perhaps, make Manila the Oriental Venice as it once was?" I think it is a Mission Impossible given the present conditions...I hope I am wrong.

January 15, 2008 10:29 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've cruised the Nile, the river Seine, Rhine, the Thames,the East River and Hudson in NYC, the Danube and Yangtze. If we (all of us) take care of the Pasig now, it can join the ranks of the lovely rivers of the world and for us to be PROUD of.
As of this date, I close my eyes and pinch my nose when I cross the bridge over the Pasig.

January 15, 2008 11:07 AM  

Blogger Amadeo said...

The first picture constrasts markedly with the second one. So where was the first one taken?

IMO, the city of Manila has to be decongested first before any serious dredging of the esteros can be planned and implemented. Squatters will congregate close to where any livelihood is possible.

Imagine the esteros being navigable again! Jeepney use around the city would be greatly diminished.

Estero Cegado is the one I most remember, closely following along R. Hidalgo. It was our view looking out of our MLQU building.

January 15, 2008 11:10 AM  

Blogger NOYPETES said...

"Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, according to her short overview of Quiapo's history, Margarita de los Reyes-Cojuangco writes that the inextricably linked esteros of Manila gave the city the claim of being an "Oriental Venice."

But I am one of those who now ask the question, "What happened?"

Ans: Ask the landgrabbing elites of Manila.

The growing population of Manila gave the opportunist landgrabbers an idea how to create more space for buildings and residential apartments to erect on the now covered up esteros. If you can find a blueprint or an old city map of Manila, you will know exactly where the old esteros were and who owns these properties now!

January 16, 2008 1:33 AM  

Blogger Urbano dela Cruz said...

Yes, we can! -using earth friendly tech.

Check out this project in Fuzhou. (via John Todd Ecological Design, Inc.)

It took London 50 years to clean up the River Thames. And they are still working on cleaning up the Chicago river that at one time was so polluted, it actually caught fire.

January 16, 2008 5:30 AM  

Blogger carlotta1924 said...

methinks it will take years and years before the esteros will be clean again.. if someone has the guts to decongest manila.

January 16, 2008 5:34 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

I think that China has recently banned plastic bags, Bernadette, as had been done in Taiwan. Many other countries are doing it. I wonder when the Philippines might consider imposing the same.

As for squatters, those along the rail tracks in the Blumentritt area have started to be relocated. But I think it's a long process although the MMDA is vigorously pursuing various relocation programs.

Yes, the older I get, the more I tend to realize the truth behind the adage, "poverty is a mental disease." I had met quite a number of Manilenyos through the past years, who were able to rise above poverty through sheer determination, and now enjoying fulfilling lives.

January 16, 2008 7:34 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

I join your thoughts on the matter, Rhoda. Hopefully, a more efficient and effective clean-up program may soon be developed for Pasig River and then later on for the other rivers and waterways of Manila.

As for the city's not-so-pleasant attributes, you're right ... I'm too darn Pollyannaish and unrealistically positive with my perspective ... hehehe!

January 16, 2008 7:38 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

A virtually impossible feat, indeed, BertN, especially considering the habits of some of our populace. However, with enough awareness and support from the general public, it may just become "possible."


By the way, I'm finally able to click on your name and be directed to your photoblog. Interesting site!

January 16, 2008 7:45 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

The stench of the Pasig River, Anonymous, is not as bad as those of the esteros. And I can't understand how people could actually live near the banks. It's truly heartbreaking to see children living in those areas.

Yes, let's hope that the general public take notice and thereby give their full support for a clean up drive.

January 16, 2008 7:55 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

The top photo, Amadeo, was taken on Reina Regente (extension of J. Abad Santos heading south) in Binondo as I was walking from Divisoria. The bottom was taken on P. Casal in Quiapo on my way to Ayala Bridge heading to San Marcelino.

The estero you speak of near MLQ on Hidalgo Street is in such horrible state. I wouldn't even take a picture of it because of the mounting garbage and stench that cover the water.

However, I agree with you ... if cleaned up and rehabilitated, these waterways could once again be used for transportation. I just hope rich kids with jet skis don't make a nuisance, though ... hehehe.

January 16, 2008 8:05 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Pete, you're right. I was told that Matapang Street between Claro M. Recto and Bilibid Viejo used to be a estero. And the most of the properties on it are owned by a family from the Spanish era.

Also, if I remember correctly, the Burnham plan to move the seat of government from Manila to Quezon City fizzled because many landgrabbers and speculators, upon getting wind of the Americans' plans, started amassing those tracts of land and started jacking up the prices. The Americans had no other choice but abandon their plans.

Unbelievable, isn't it?

January 16, 2008 8:11 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Thank you very much, Urbano! I was planning on emailing you to draw your attention to this post and invite your thoughts.

I will definitely check out thos links right after I finished replying the the comments.

Again, thank you, especially for the hope that "it can be done!"

January 16, 2008 8:14 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Ay, Carla. Again, I hope I'm still alive when it happens. I'd really like to city our beloved city regin most of its glory :)

By the way, you may have already known about this, but just in case, let me repost this email I got:

“Art and the Environment:
Issues, Initiatives & Recommended Measures!”

Art is “one of the most powerful languages humans have ever invented.” An artistic statement, through a photograph, a painting or other art forms, can deliver a message with instant impact. Hence, art plays a critical role in environmental protection & sustainable development. It can promote a deep understanding of our natural world & encourage caring for & positive action on our environment.

Hear more about this topic on Jan. 16, 2008, (Wed., 6:30 - 7:30 PM, DZRH-AM radio) when Kalikasan, Kaunlaran! features Art & the Environment with noted photographer Isa Lorenzo, Director, Silverlens Gallery & advocate for the arts & heritage preservation John Silva, Sr. Consultant, National Museum of the Philippines . Conversing with them in Tagalog-English is KK! Dir./Host Dr. Cora Claudio, photography hobbyist & Pres., EARTH Institute Asia .

January 16, 2008 8:21 AM  

Blogger Tina said...

g'day eric thanks for the insight bout estero maybe if you are the lord
mayor of manila cleaning the estero
would be high on your list! regards
from australia!

January 16, 2008 8:45 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Hi Tina! How are you? Yes, it'll definitely on my priority list :)

By the way, has Australia banned plastic bags, yet? I think it is one of the countries who has been considering it.

January 16, 2008 8:53 AM  

Blogger  gmirage said...

Its doable but as said, will take a really long time. But if the government don't do anything about the housing problem and squatting...also the migration of people from the rural to urban....???? =(

I've said before in reply to one of your posts how amazing i see it that Pinoys abroad are much disciplined than in Pinas. Waste segregation is followed keenly...at least thats how i believe. One would think that the government(Pinas) is not implementing the laws well and the lack of individual discipline has lead to this.

There is a warning given at Revelation 11:18 "The time has come to...destroy(ing) those who destroy the earth."
But then again people take the bible for granted lang =(

January 16, 2008 2:01 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Many writings have been published that justify or provide solutions, G. Mirage, but somehow, the problem remains if not mounting altogether.

I have one take on it: deep seated fear or anger, which leads to apathy.

January 16, 2008 7:56 PM  

Blogger Tina said...

i'm fine thanks eric. the plan is to phase out plastic shopping bags next year but supermarkets have been reducing their plastic bags usage already by 50% the last 5 years. increasing number of people are using
"green bags" to put their grocery.

January 18, 2008 6:19 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Oh, so they're doing it in stages. Wonderful.

As I've said, they should do the same here in the Philippines. I bet it'll greatly help in diminishing our severely clogged and polluted waterways.

Thanks, Tina!

January 18, 2008 7:40 AM  

Blogger -= dave =- said...

Restoring the environment is not a question of means but a question of will. And don't inflame this with the Rich vs. Poor baloney because we all live in the same planet.

January 20, 2008 2:16 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

No, I won't Dave, since both are parties to the utter decay of our estero system :)

January 21, 2008 11:11 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I was actually referring to some comments, Señor E :)

January 21, 2008 12:44 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Even if it were, Dave, I wouldn't mind, especially coming from you. Actually, I can get carried away at times and nice to know that some are able to jar me back into reality ... hehehe!

January 21, 2008 7:56 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Me thinks we should continue writing, exposing, talking about these...until these small waves become a bigger wave of awareness that propel everyone concerned into action. The best part should be coming from the people who live in these areas - a sense of pride and responsibility be stirred. Yes, Poverty is indeed a mental disorder! I felt overwhelmed and hopeless ...

January 25, 2008 6:27 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Hi Jase! How you've been?

Yes, I agree with you. The more we keep talking about such issues, the more we help in stirring up awareness. And as you've said, those living nearby should adopt an attitude that prevents further deteriotation of our estero systems.

January 25, 2008 6:58 AM  

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Life in Manila as observed by a former New Yorker who with a laptop and camera has reinvented himself as a storyteller. Winner of the PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS: Best Photo Blog in 2007 and three Best Single Post awards in 2008.


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