Habitat International Coalition
Global network for the right to habitat and social justice
Pasig River Rehabilitation Program
 Download as PDF    Bookmark and Share
Pasig River System – Metro Manila
Author: Murphy, Denis; Anana, Ted

1. History, Background and Context

Through Manila's early history, the Pasig River which runs through the heart of the metropolis was the city's center and lifeline. It was the principal means of transport, and the big warehouses and factories were on the river as well as the houses of the rich, including the presidential palace. However, after World War II and with population growth, road construction, and newer business location strategies, the city center moved from the river to other sites. Makati, for example, became the city's business center. The river was largely abandoned. Many urban poor people moved in, factories were abandoned, and the wealthy moved off. The river became the sewer of the city rather than its lifeline.

The Pasig River system is a strategic and environmentally endangered waterway. Winding through the most densely populated areas in the country's National Capital Region (NCR), the river links Manila Bay in the west with Laguna Lake in the east.

The river is 26 kilometers long, 50 meters wide, and an average of four to six meters deep. The river basin includes eight cities and three municipalities,: Pasig City, City of Manila, Pateros, Caloocan City, Marikina City, Pasay City, Taguig, Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong City, and Makati City. The Pasig River basin area is 570 sq. km.

Deterioration of the Pasig River became noticeable as far back as the 1930s. During that period, fish migration from Laguna Lake began to diminish. In the 1950s, there was a drop in bathing activities in the Pasig. In the 1960s, people no longer used the river for washing clothes. Ferry boat transport also began to decline. By the 1970s, the river began to give off an offensive smell, especially during the dry season. In early 1980s, all fishing activity within the river system was no longer possible.

By the early 1990s, the Pasig River was generally considered biologically inactive. Health authorities found its coliform content to be extraordinarily high, making the river a vector for disease. Entire stretches of the water had acquired a dark, murky color. Huge islands of floating garbage encrusted the water surface in many parts of the river system. Sunken boats and abandoned barges made navigation not only difficult but hazardous. Along with factories, commercial establishments and houses, colonies of makeshift shanties lined long stretches of the riverbank, as well as major creeks and esteros. Flooding in many areas along the river also became more frequent.

Rehabilitation of the Pasig River began in 1991 with help from the Danish aid agency DANIDA. Emphasis was on improving water quality and environmental matters. During the Ramos administration some 5,000 families living on stilts were relocated, mostly to Dasmarias, Cavite. The people were said to be major polluters of the river. Studies show between 30 and 40% of these people returned to Manila for economic reasons.
During the Estrada years evictions took place again affecting families living within 10 meters of the river. This extension of the easement from three meters in the national Water Code was done by resolutions of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and is hotly contested. Lawyers say the MMDA doesn't have the power to change a national law. Approximately 5,000 families were evicted, most of whom were sent to Kasiglahan Village I, Montalban, also known as "Erap City."

In August 2000 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the government signed an agreement that would eventually give equal priority to the environment and the people living along the banks. In September 2000 the residents of Pineda resisted demolition. One member of the demolition team was killed, and ADB told the government to stop all evictions and deal with the people in a more humane way.

In the two series of evictions, the NGOs working on the river cooperated with the government. However, this relationship changed in September 2000 when the Pineda community organized to resist demolition. This story will be told below.
The water cleaning part of the project is making progress, according to ADB officials. The urban renewal work is not, and indeed the lack of progress seriously tempted the ADB to cancel the loan agreement in 2003.

2. Objectives, Strategies and Reaches

a. The objectives of the government and the ADB are contained in their Resettlement Action Program (March 2000).

"The overall objectives are to improve environmental management of the Pasig River basin within Metro Manila, particularly for wastewater management and to promote urban renewal. The specific purpose is to restore and sustain Class C water quality standard for the Pasig River.
An important component is the establishment of 10-meter wide environmental preservation areas (EPAs) along approximately 23 km. of both banks of the Pasig River. The establishment of EPAs is essential to (i) ensure public safety, and provide a buffer zone between the river and resident population to protect them from flooding; (ii) enable environmental management, and reduce the direct discharge of untreated liquid and solid wastes to the river, (iii) provide access to the river for emergencies, maintenance, river transport, and amenities; and (iv) provide recreation areas like riverside parks, greenbelts, and promenades. To establish the EPAs, it is necessary to relocate informal settler families currently living along the riverbanks in dangerous, depressed, and unsanitary conditions.

b. The following are the objectives, strategies, and reaches of the NGOs and people's organizations (POs) working along the river.


  • Halt all evictions beyond a three-meter easement that is required in the national Water Code. Require government to limit easement to only three meters, not 10.
  • Work with government, ADB and other housing groups to upgrade the urban poor areas and help form decent sustainable communities.
  • Take steps to limit flood control infrastructure on Laguna Lake, the source of the Pasig River, that will destroy the livelihood of 70,000 fishermen around the lake. This area was not prominent in the ADB-government agreement but it has become more and more of a crucial issue since the lake is the source of the river's water.
  • Establish strong POs and a river system wide coalition of poor people's organizations.
  • Gain allies in the religious, academic and business communities.

Strategic Criteria:

1. The NGOs and POs stress the importance of true people's participation in the solution of problems.
2. They realize they need allies at all levels of society to support their work.
3. Good solutions result from good negotiations and good negotiations depend on government and funding agencies accepting the poor as main actors and decision makers, in short, as equals.

Size of Participating and Beneficiary Populations:

It is difficult to say exactly how many families are involved. There were 60,000 families along the river proper in 2000, according to an Urban Poor Associates ocular survey. Along the tributaries there are an additional 10,000 families, according to a recent statement of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Around the lake are another 70,000-80,000 families. All these families are directly affected. They total 140,000-150,000 families or 700,000-750,000 persons at five members per family.

Territory Reach:

The river runs 26 kilometers from the lake to Manila Bay. Its tributaries run through eight cities and three municipalities. The lake is shared by 182 seashore lakeside barangays, and is 90,000 hectares in extent. It is a total river system: catchment area (the lake), the tributaries, and the river itself.

Innovative Aspects:

  • Socio-organizational. This is the first attempt to build a people's coalition among so many communities around one government project. New organization structures are needed. For the government also the number of local governments involved in coordinating the project is unprecedented.
  • Technological. Possibly the dike techniques involved on the lake.
  • Financial. Financial arrangements follow traditional practices.
  • Methodological. Not since the early 1970's in the Tondo Foreshore Project funded by the World Bank have so many NGOs and POs worked together with government and a multi-lateral funder on such a major project.

3. Actors Involved and their Roles

Beneficiary population

700,000-750,000 poor persons, urban poor and fishermen.

Social organizations

So far there are 18 POs along the river grouped under ULAP (Uganayang Lakas ng mga Apektadong Pamilya sa baybaying Ilog Pasig), and 182 POs of fishermen grouped in the towns around the lake. They are grouped under Mapagpala. They hope to have a decisive role in what is finally done on the lake.


Three main NGOs are involved:
Urban Poor Associates
CO Multiversity
Community Organization of the Philippines Enterprise

They help the people organize, analyse the solutions proposed and work for good solutions. They train leaders to negotiate with government officials, to know the needs of their people, to listen to the people in democratic meetings, to be courageous but not reckless, and to have many other qualities of good leaders.


National and local governments are coordinated in the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission. Almost all national agencies and representatives of all the affected cities and towns are involved. It is expected they will lend their total resources to this work.


The Asian Development Bank. People hope the Bank will use the power its money gives to support people's participation and other pro-poor norms.

Church and Other Religions

About 82% of the beneficiaries are Catholic. The rest are Protestants and Muslims. Its is hoped they will all support the people's efforts.


The Ateneo de Manila Institute of Philippine Culture has made studies on the river and its faculty have worked with POs. They can help the people analyse their problems and the proposed solutions.

Private Initiative

There has not been much private initiative in the urban renewal aspects of the program. Lately, however, a lay Catholic group, Gawad Kalinga, has began building houses in one Pasig River community.

International Cooperation

The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights is organizing a study program throughout Asia to analyse the various government efforts to upgrade rivers and canals. There are such efforts in Calcutta, Surabaya, Ho Chi Min City, Karachi and other cities. This study will allow the different partners to share ideas.

Political Parties

No real role. The bigger political parties are only active at election time. The ideological groups are not present on the river in any force.

4. Program or project components (brief description of how they link)

Before responding to this section it may be useful to return to an event mentioned above, namely the eviction of people in Barangay, Pineda in September 2000 which was a turning point in the POs' involvement along the Pasig River. We can call it simply the Pineda Story. It gives some concreteness to all that was said above.

After these events there were no more forced evictions on the Pasig. The government threatened throughout 2003 to evict a further 11,000 families from the river and major tributaries, but it didn't happen. ADB which is to fund such relocation is not yet satisfied with the condition of people evicted up to 2000. The MMDA has threatened to evict 10,000 families from the smaller tributaries but other government agencies say flatly it will not be done.

The people of Pineda who remained were visited by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who proclaimed the land in their favor. They subsequently negotiated with the landowner to buy the land at a subsidized rate. NGOs, such as, the Foundation for the Development of the Urban Poor (FDUP) and the Technical Assistance Organization (TAO-Pilipinas, a body of young architects) helped the people plan financing schemes, better roads, walkways and drainage. The people now have land tenure security, better access to their homes, and the will to improve their community even more.

In general every community along the river as in Pineda seeks land tenure security and upgrading. Almost every community has made a "people's plan" of how they would like this to happen.

The Punta community refused to move from the 10-meter easement unless government relocated them to an obsolete factory site nearby. After many mass actions and meetings the national government agreed to give Manila City the money needed to start expropriation proceedings against the factory land owners.

In Baseco at the mouth of the river, after many difficulties with the local government ADB is finally starting its upgrading work. Its first project will be for 1,000 families who will be moved from the 10-meter easement a little inland. ADB works closely here with the people's organization Kabalikat.

Initial planning of the PO NASAPA in Parola for on-site upgrading which had the blessing of ADB and the national government has run into difficulties with the local government and is on hold until after the election on May 10 this year. Similar work proceeds in several other areas.

Local Officials

A major problem has been the local authorities. They are supportive of the rehabilitation if it involves water quality or the removal of urban poor people, but they are much less supportive when it comes to discussing land tenure security and upgrading/housing. No mayor has supported these two initiatives. POs with the help of ADB, churches, national government and the media have, however, been partially successful. The mayor of Pasig, for example, which includes Pineda, insisted he must build tenements for the people. The people didn't want this and had to quarrel with the mayor for two years before he gave in. The mayor of Manila doesn't wanted any people's participation. He doesn't want ADB or other outside groups either, but he can't help but deal with them because he lacks money. He has called NGOs "Satanas".

ADB and the national government or the president must find ways to "influence" the mayors to cooperate in slum upgrading. Their resistance is a main bottleneck. The POs can veto government initiatives, for example evictions, but they can't provide upgrading or titles.

The POs have repeatedly appealed to the president to bring the mayors to a more rational position. She hasn't done so for political reasons. She needs the mayors at election time. The ADB itself has been leery of talking forcefully with certain mayors.

Local officials are the major problems for poor people in similar projects throughout Asia.
Easement Issue

For four years the POs and NGOs have fought for a three-meter rather than a 10-meter easement. The narrower easement would mean all the families could stay on site since there is usually an existing easement that could be widened a little without ejecting families. There have been marches, court cases, and appeals to the national government. The validity of the 10-meter easement has been questioned. The social justice of the 10-meter easement is also questioned since only poor people will be removed; factories, warehouses and homes of the rich will not be touched because the owners would have to be compensated and the government lacks such funds. A cabinet official has promised however that "No poor families will be moved till we are ready to move against the rich also." This issue has been a rallying point for communities along the river.

In the work with the fishermen of Laguna Lake the picture is mixed. They have formed a coalition of all existing village and town fishermen groups which argues for their views, but they haven't been able to stop construction of a dike that would hold water in the lake and not allow it to flow down river to Manila Bay. The fishermen say the dike will also stop the flow of tidal salt water into the lake which is needed for nourishing the fish and for cleaning the lake water. They are calling for a new environmental study since the dike is being built without a good look at the total environment. The long range view for the river may also not be good for the fishermen. It is said the lake will become the source of Manila's drinking water. If so, all fishing will be discouraged. There may be alternatives, however.

It can be said the POs have succeeded in stopping all forced evictions, in formulating people's plans, in calling the attention of government to their views, and to initiating several concrete examples involving land tenure security and upgrading.

Habitat Elements

In the proposed upgrading of the communities, land, housing, etc. are all concerns.

Social and Cultural

The POs are near autonomous, that is, they still expect some NGO help, but such dependence is lessening. We need to do much more to involve the churches, universities and business world. Women constitute the bulk of the leadership.

Economic and Ecological Sustainability

Not much has been done to strengthen the POs economically. So far there has been only basic infrastructure built, such as, drainage systems, though in Baseco a Catholic lay group is building houses for the people using donated funds and the people's labor. So far 100 homes have been built. The group says they will build 2,000. We are trying to work with them to secure people's participation in the selection of beneficiaries and other crucial matters. The houses are row houses of 20 square meters on 28-meter lots. They cost a little less than $1,000.

All the things listed in the outline will be part of the upgraded, housed communities. They are all envisioned, but the immediate push is for land and basic services through upgrading.

Contributions to Urban Development

There are many. ADB is planning a 15-year slum upgrading program for Metro Manila running to $200 million. The successes in the Pasig work can be incorporated in the new plan. Hopefully the failures can be avoided.

5. Primary Tools Used

The primary tool used is community organization which builds mass-based people's democratic and non-violent organizations that are able to win a seat for the people at the bargaining table. The method borrows much from the late Saul Alinsky's work in the United States, from the work of Paolo Freire, and from traditional Asian organizing methods. It prepares people and leaders for the long difficult struggle for a better life. It has a vision of a better world for all. "A better world is possible," the people believe.

Money for the NGOs is mainly from the churches. These is shared with the POs for expenses of transportation, communication, office rent, etc. The people raise their own funds through various savings schemes. The POs have not yet signed any legal agreement except in Pineda.

6. Main Lessons Learned

Summarizing the work of 10 years on the river the following can be said:

  • Distant relocation is never a good solution. It has never worked well.
  • We have to work long and hard to be successful. Nothing good is freely given.
  • While we work for land and housing we should also take care of food, health and the education of the children. These can be forgotten though they are the great problems of the very poor. They are often forgotten because leaders tend to be better off than ordinary members.
  • There is no one way to organize. We must suit the organizing style and temperature to the concrete situation and community.
  • The mayors are powerful figures in Philippine law and it is difficult to oppose them.
  • There are good government officials who will help.
  • The solutions proposed by poor people here are more and more the solutions we find in the literature proposed in other countries and by the UN and multi-lateral bodies. The older traditional solutions are now discredited, though our political leaders hold on to them, such as high rise tenements as a major solution to slums.

7. Keywords

People's organizations, evictions, upgrading.

8. Sources

Materials sent by regular mail.

9. Contacts

Urban Poor Associates
25A Mabuhay Street, Brgy Central
Diliman, Quezon City 1100

Tels. (632) 426-4119 - 426-7615
Telefax. (632) 426-4118
Web: www.locoa.net/upa

a case study

Pineda is an urban poor community on the Pasig River in Pasig City. On September 6, 2000, Pineda leaders approached the Uganayang Lakas ng mga Apektadong Pamilya sa baybaying Ilog Pasig (ULAP) for help with an impending demolition of 270 homes in Barangay, Pineda. During the following 35 days, the people of Pineda with the help of CO Multiversity, Urban Poor Associates, and friends in government, the Asian Development Bank and abroad, put together a campaign that mirrors some of the most important CO achievements of the past and deserves study.

The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) was established in 1998 to implement a 15-year development plan to "improve environmental management of the Pasig River basin within Metro Manila, particularly for wastewater management and to promote urban renewal." All cities and municipalities along the river and eleven governmental departments are involved. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) signed a contract in August 2000 to fund part of the project.

The plan's first step was to clear a 10-meter easement along the river, referred to by the government as environmental preservation areas (EPAs). The wide easement is a bone of contention because it was never justified and causes the removal of as many as 10,000 families. As of October 2000 about 2,500 families had been removed.

The easement would affect 270 homes in Pineda. Their strategy was two-fold: to ask the government to delay or cancel demolitions beyond a three meter easement line, and to convince the ADB that resettlement sites didn't meet ADB guidelines and the bank should persuade the government to halt demolitions until sites were ready. On September 21 Pineda leaders with CO Multiversity-Urban Poor Associates organizers met with Manila authorities, the PRRC, other government officials, and the official planner. 170 Pineda residents gathered outside the meeting to demonstrate they were organized.

Demolition was set to proceed and the people resolved to resist. They again met with ADB to demand a halt to the evictions because relocation sites failed to meet ADB standards. But the government rejected deferment and demolitions began on 26 September. When the demolition crew arrived, the people had formed a symbolic line of resistance. The police pushed them aside and began demolition. Some 20 meters away a fight broke out between the demolition crew and a group that included relatives of barangay officials, and a demolition crew member was stabbed to death. Barangay officials opposed the people's plan and had nothing to do with the people's activities. The government claimed the violence and killing were premeditated by the people and the NGOs supporting them.

The death turned the demolition into a featured news story. Along with the killing they discussed issues behind the demolition, including the people's alternate plan and ADB involvement. Reporters called ADB for comments. It was the first time ADB was involved in such a fracas, and ADB officials said such violence couldn't be part of an ADB resettlement program. Weaknesses in the relocation process were revealed and the continued evictions began to take serious tolls, with children missing school, men missing work, and several illnesses and one death reportedly related to the stressful situation. Pineda was visited by a Senate staff member and the issue was discussed at a Senate hearing. LOCOA, an Asian CO network, organized a campaign of e-mails to ADB demanding its resettlement guidelines be upheld. ADB finally re-evaluated the resettlement areas and found them inadequate, recommending all demolitions along the river be stopped. On October 12, PRRC announced it had no plans for further demolitions.

Though the stop to demolitions did not save the houses in Pineda, it may benefit thousands of other families along the river, in relocation centers, and even in other urban poor areas. And while 270 houses were lost and several families were not relocated, the remaining families are working on plans to stay. They are proud they acted to save their homes and achieved something significant.

• Financing   • Housing and Environment   • Housing and Land Rights / Right to Adequate Housing   • Housing and Land Rights Violations   • Infrastructure    • People’s Housing Processes   • Technical Areas of Housing   

Habitat International Coalition
General Secretariat