By Arnie Justin A. Duran

Pollution that heightens disaster risk is at the center of the story of the Marilao-Meycauayan-Obando River System (MMORS) and its nearby communities.

The MMORS was once identified as one of the “dirtiest rivers in the world.”

Its rehabilitation, which goes back to as early as 2008, remains a big task to take on. It involves constant dredging, full attention and funding, and a collaborative effort among its surrounding cities like Valenzuela and Caloocan, cities in Metro Manila, and Meycauayan and San Jose del Monte cities in Bulacan province.

Sen. Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate committee on environment, described the river work to be a lifelong task. “Maintaining a river is work we will have to do for the rest of our lives. It is eternal work,” she said.

Surrounding heavy industries on gold smelting, leather tanneries, and waste recycling are major contributors to pollution in MMORS. It is also at the receiving end of wastes by 3.5 million residents living in the riverbanks, said Lormelyn Claudio, Central Luzon director of the Environmental Management Bureau.

Senator Villar said a more impactful route to rehabilitation is a cleanup program that focuses on proper waste segregation among people.

While dredging may improve water quality, it runs the risk of aquatic habitat loss.

Then governor Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado made a call to local governments, civic orgs and citizens to join hands in reviving the MMORS. In order to stop pollution in the rivers, everyone in the communities must cooperate, join the dialogue and do their part to revive the river, he said.

Private sector support

Early in 2020, the local government revisited the rehabilitation effort with a private partner: San Miguel Corporation (SMC). It vowed to help solve flooding problems and water pollution in the province.

“Constant dredging and cleanup is important for these tributaries leading to the Manila Bay as silt, trash, and other obstructions restrict the free flow of water, causing heavy flooding, and affecting the marine ecosystem and traditional fishing grounds,” said SMC President and Chief Operating Officer Ramon Ang in the news.

Residents expressed renewed optimism in the effort.

Alan Jimena, a resident living near the water system, said this initiative will not only help enhance the quality of water but will also lessen the risks of flooding that affects the community.

“Kapag umuulan dito, makikita talaga ‘yung mga basura sa ilog. Lumulutang tapos gumigilid. At oo, umaapaw siya lalo na kapag bumabagyo kaya ‘yung mga tao, nalulubog sa baha,” Jimena explained.

He also mentioned that floods in their area bring threat to the health of the locals, especially when it affects the water they drink or used to clean.

“May mga pagkakataon rin talagang kailangan nang lumikas ng mga tao sa mga evacuation center, lalo’t mataas na ‘yung baha at pumapasok na sa mga bahay nila,” Jimena added.

Flooding risks in MMORS

Pollution in the river becomes a critical factor during strong typhoons because these heighten devastating floods, as evidenced by recent typhoons. Garbage that is not properly disposed often becomes obstructions that cause clogs in river systems.

According to the website of Bulacan’s Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC), towns of San Jose Del Monte, Santa Maria, Marilao, Meycauayan, Obando, and Bocaue with at least 10,000 families are directly exposed to flooding risks from the MMORS and Manila Bay.

The council also noted that the 16 water level stations, five along the MMORS, help in monitoring water levels in the rivers which often overflow when triggered by high tides and typhoons.

The PDRRMC has recorded over-the-knee floods (0.2-0.8 m) and some communities were submerged because of the recent Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco) that devastated Central Luzon, Cagayan Valley, and other parts of the country in November.

That’s why the provincial government and local officials always remind their residents to prepare for these calamities particularly in low-lying and river areas, especially when the national weather agency announces the typhoon season.

Jimena, who used to be a factory worker, said that proper waste management among factories and industries near the river should be emphasized.

“Isa talaga sa mga problema ay ‘yung basura. Kapag bumabaha nga, labas lahat ng basura eh. Kaya pagtuunan din siguro ng pansin ‘yung mga factories,” he said, adding that discipline among people is also important.

Students staying home at the moment due to the pandemic are optimistic to contribute to environmental efforts.

Marygrace Jayan, San Jose Del Monte National High School student, expressed interest in the greening programs of her city. Some of these are geared towards students like the tree-planting activity along the rivers.

To make more young people interested in this, the government and its partners must also empower learners with tools and opportunities that give everyone an understanding of the strong connection between pollution and disasters.

This article was written and prepared by Arnie Justin Duran (Student-Journalist) and Justine Joy Chua (School Paper Adviser) from San Jose Del Monte National High School, Division of San Jose del Monte City as a final output of DepEd-DRRMS and AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Initiative: An Online Environmental Journalism Training.