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Amazing rehab of Las Piñas-Zapote Rivers

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By Domini M. Torrevillas
January 24, 2012 12:00 AM

The recipient of the United Nations 2011 Water for Life Best Water Management Practices is the Las Pinas-Zapote Rivers Rehabilitation Program. This column takes off its hat to the Villar Foundation, which made the transformation of the murky and dirty rivers into an amazing model of leaders and community members cooperation.

The transformation was not well publicized, so it was with glee that media persons at the Bulong Pulungan session last Tuesday listened to former representative Cynthia Villar talk about the project.

A video presentation preceded Cynthia’s talk. Footages showed the destruction of communities by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009. Cynthia said the devastation gave two realizations: one, that people’s uncaring attitude in disposing of garbage and cutting of trees have made many areas vulnerable to flooding, and two, that when natural disasters strike, both rich and poor are affected.

“We saw how flood waters exposed the tons of garbage that we have been dumping caused our drainage and river systems to choke. The unusual high amount of rainfall forced our power and communication systems to collapse across many areas for several days, or even for weeks in some areas. Numerous lives were disrupted not only in the depressed communities, but even in many of the middle and upscale villages where residents thought they were free from flooding or typhoon-related problems.”

Thank God that Las Pinas was spared from the troubles that Ondoy brought to Metro Manila, said Cynthia. And this was on account of the accomplishment of the Villar Foundation’s quest to revive the Las Pinas-Zapote Rivers, the measures that had been undertaken, and the green social enterprises that were born in the process of the search for creative solutions in cleaning up the rivers.

Las Pinas, located south of Manila, with a population of around 300,000, has two major rivers: the 12.6-kilometer Las Pinas river, and the 18.3-k Zapote river which is shared with the town of Bacoor, Cavite. There are tributary waterways and creeks that total 25.1 kilometers running through the 20 barangays of Las Pinas city. This gives the Las Pinas River a total span of 56 kilometers. These rivers had been the source of fresh water and edible marine life in the olden days, said Cynthia. Over the last four decades, however, urbanization subjected the rivers to human neglect, waste dumping, and pollution.

How was Las Pinas spared from the devastation wrought by Ondoy? In 2002, Villar Foundation had launched the Sagip Ilog program with the goal of cleaning up the river to address two major concerns — the worsening flood problem in the city, and allowing aquatic life to thrive again.

The Sagip Ilog launch took place on Sen. Manny Villar’s birthday, on December 13, 2002, during which he donated a backhoe on a barge, a speedboat with barge, and a garbage truck — all of which were essential in cleaning and dredging the river, the initial main tasks that had to be undertaken to revive the rivers.

The initial cleaning up attempt encountered three major obstacles. How were these solved?

First, the problem of informal settlers. To date, about a thousand informal settlers have been moved out of the river and into the Community Mortgage Program or CMP areas. Financial assistance was provided for the dismantling, relocating, and rebuilding of the moved settlers’ houses. Down payment on the individual lots was made, while the beneficiary-families continue to pay the monthly amortization of about a thousand pesos.

The second problem was the water hyacinths that clogged the rivers and multiplied at a fast rate in a matter of days. Fortunately said Cynthia, she met an exporter who was familiar with the use of water hyacinth stalk as raw material for various items. What the Las Pinas people did was to harvest the hyacinths and dry them under the sun. Weaving sites were put up. Idle residents became volunteer harvesters and discovered to their delight that they could make money, i.e., 25 centavos per stalk. At the weaving centers, such items as slippers, clothes hampers, bags, trays and baskets are woven and sold to dealers.

The third problem, coconut husks once thrown into and contributing to the clogging of rivers, are now a source of income. Thanks are due Dr. Arboleda, a former Bicol University professor who invented a decorticating machine, which extracts the fiber from the husks. The coco coir is woven into nets that are placed on the riverbanks bank and hill sites to prevent soil erosion. Farmers find the mats very effective. As in the water hyacinth weaving centers, coco coir work areas are near the homes of the workers, who do coir weaving in their homes or backyards. Each family with two persons can produce nets amounting to P6,000.

According to Cynthia, there was enough surplus income from the coco coir business to pay for the blankets woven at the weaving centers (the machines were bought from unused weaving machines in Baguio) and donated to poor victims of typhoons, fire, and other calamities. These blankets are hand woven in the Las Pinas Handloom Weaving Center.

And there’s more use for the versatile coconut tree. Fifty per cent of the output of the decorticating machine is coco peat, which is an ingredient for producing organic fertilizer through composting. Kitchen wastes are collected daily, except on Sundays, and by what are called “bio men.” Instead of garbage trucks which the local governments pay for P6,000 per haul, these volunteers ride their tri-“sikads” and pick up the wet garbage from house to house, and get paid for their effort. The wet garbage is processed to produce organic fertilizer, which is sold to farmers and gardeners. There are 60 such composting facilities in all of Las Pinas’ 20 barangays.

Besides separating wet from dry garbage, the Las Pinas residents segregate garden wastes, which they bring to vermin composting facilities. The organic fertilizer produced provides additional income to 141 families. It helps reduce biodegradable waste that otherwise the city garbage collection unit has to handle, and contributes to the promotion of organic farming.

Now, what is done with non-biodegradable garbage that junk shops don’t buy? According to Cynthia, there is a monthly “recycling day” in all the barangays. The biodegradable wastes are taken to vermin composting facilities. The non-biodegradable are brought to a center where plastic pulverizing machine crushes non-biodegradable materials are crushed into shreds or pellets that are used in the production of pavers and hollow blocks. The hollow blocks are used by the barangays in improving parks and sidewalks.

 There is yet another worth emulating projects in the city. Citronella planting has been started, not only as part of the city’s greening program, but also to start another social enterprise for other residents who still need to augment their incomes — the production of citronella oil which can be used in preventing the dreaded dengue.

 “Our efforts to clean Las Pinas have given birth to green social enterprises,” said Cynthia. “The Villar Foundation advances the start-up capital for any equipment or structure needed. The income of the enterprises are reinvested in the expansion of the enterprises to benefit more people and help bring us closer to achieving a zero-waste city.”

“The generation of income from the social enterprises related to our waste management program is our key towards ensuring the sustainability of our environmental initiatives,” said Cynthia. This does not mean poverty has been eliminated in Las Pinas, said Cynthia. At least the poverty level has been reduced to near zero level.

If Las Pinas can be transformed, can’t other cities do the same? We need visionaries like the Villars to influence their constituents to make a similar transformation.

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