The stretch of water called the Marilao, Meycauayan and Obando rivers may be many things, but it is not, at least not yet, dead. Well, soon enough it will be, thanks to excrement both human and beastly—not to mention tons of trash and industrial waste—allegedly being strewn all over its waters day in, day out.
Last week began with a call from my publisher to check out a river that carried the distinction of being one of the most polluted in the world. It’s not a unique distinction, as many know, but notoriety of this kind carries with it all the trimmings of a possible story. Curious as any cat lover could be, I then ventured to take a trip down Bulakan with the Philippines Graphic team to see for myself what the big fuss was all about. Our guide, a friend of a colleague at work, rented us a white-blue boat that would ferry us through ten kilometres of the said river. The boat’s name was Our Lady of Medjugorje.
On the eve of our trip, I asked my wife Che to prepare everything save the darn kitchen sink only because it wouldn’t fit in the carry-all. She dutifully packed two towels, extra shirts and a blouse, some medical face masks, the digital camera and recorder, a buck knife, sunglasses, scarves and baseball caps. We also brought along pain relievers, soap, drinking water and a bottle of iced tea for me since I find water too bland.
The trip next day took us across Metro Manila from Makati City, entering Malabon then Bulakan through the old Macarthur highway around ten in the morning. We arrived at the North Pinagkabalian Floodgate located on the border of Malabon and Bulakan at about half past the hour. The boat was spick and span and ready to be boarded.
The first thirty minutes took the team along the Binuangan area, where the banks of the river were flanked by houses as colourful as the boats parked along the shore’s edge. The river was spread wider than anything I have seen so far, roughly a kilometre and a half across, quietly rising and falling to the solemn beat of wings of seagulls and sparrows that congregated around the area.
The waters heaved in moss-green, bringing with it the clean scent of summer and a dampness that leisurely smoothed out into the vast plains bordering both sides of the gigantic stream. As I panned my camera, I saw a school of fish a few feet from the hurrying boat, some leaping into the air in a grand display of acrobatic skill. For the seagulls, lunch hadn’t been this good.
As the boat scurried past the junction where the waters of the Manila Bay and Meycauayan River spill over each other in a torrential fit, creating what sounded like the rasp of unwelcome waves amid what was otherwise a hushed stream, a change in the river began to emerge.
What an hour ago was moss-green had turned disturbingly auburn, darker as a pit razed by fire. The stench that followed had nothing of mere trash in it, leading us to early on conclude that human and animal excrement could be the cause. About ten thousand households line the sooty banks of the river, hovering on bamboo stilts above the water. Our boatman, Mang Manding, said that schools of fish are often found under the makeshift toilets of the houses with mouths opened and prepared for a feeding frenzy.
Farther downstream the water had turned from auburn to pitch black. The liquid was so thick with muck and grime that no ripple was in sight. It bears noticing, too, that trash suddenly came from out of nowhere: plastic shopping bags, rubber slippers, fast food Styrofoam plates and cups, plastic water bottles, discarded toys, torn clothes, and water lilies that grow on the clutch of refuse around them.
The stench was anything but tolerable, forcing us the wear our facemasks. But nothing worked, not even the perfume my wife brought with her in anticipation of the worst. The waters reeked as nothing I had imagined or can foresee, piercing layers of cloth wrapped ‘round my face.
The three sticks of Marlboros which I took in successive gulps didn’t help in ridding the air of the foul odor. It was like treating my self and the team to a horrendous B-movie sans the stop button of a DVD player.
Floating on the formless lifelessness of the stream we suddenly decided to head back to where we first started. I could already feel the spray of malodorous liquid sticking to my hair, face and eyes. The river had all the characteristics of the plague-ridden Nile. This is about the only hell and damnation I could tolerate, I blurted out. That same day, I also decided to get a haircut.
There is something vaguely shameful about a river forced into the verge of death. Its grisly face fails any attempt at wordplay. Anyway, words matter little when lives and livelihood are at stake. Within this particular clutch of earth and sky lie a source of life that has been brutally mutilated and murdered all for the sake of industrial and personal progress.
This river system could have been a wonder and a lure where Sunday boat rides with family and an evening of quiet celebration could have been its sideshow attraction. Renting out the services of a fire dancer is quite unnecessary; the lure of moonlight grazing across the river’s ripples is all that is needed for an evening as spectacular as daybreak at the Hudson or the Ganges.
For now, it gasps and croaks under a weight of refuse too monstrous to deny.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the editor-in-chief and interim literary editor of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror. He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle. He regularly writes reviews for the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.