Pasig River is not only a passive geographical location in history, but it is also an active space and historical actor in the shaping of history. This is according to the work of Ms. Analyn B. Muñoz, doctorate student of history at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.
Her research on the Pasig River has become part of the discussions among heritage advocates who are voicing their opposition and concern over the proposed Pasig River Expressway (PAREX), a 19.37 km six-lane, all elevated expressway which will be built on top of the Pasig River with the aim of providing an alternative link to the business districts in Metro Manila.
Pasig River in history
The formation of the Pasig River began 6,000 years ago, said Muñoz in a Webinar held by UP Manila for the Quincentennial Commemoration, even before the city of Manila had any land to stand on. In fact, along the banks of the river, studies have revealed the development of three bygone kingdoms in the country: Tundun, Sapa, and Manila.
During that time, the Pasig River or the Manila River, was the primary transport route. In a 2018 study of Muñoz presented at a Manila Studies Conference, she quoted a Spanish governor-general who said it was Manila’s first highway, “if by highway, we meant a major transport route.”
The river was also a major source of water and livelihood for those who lived near it. People used it for various reasons such as bathing and drinking, and the land around the river is very fertile which produced a lot of materials people could use for construction. Houses were also oriented towards the river because of the comfort it brings since almost everything you need can be found along its banks.
The industrialization brought about by the American period altered the development of transportation and prioritized the construction of paved roads and railways for motorized vehicles. The importance of the Pasig River — as a major transport route and source of comfort and livelihood — slowly diminished with the precedence of land-based transportation and the river continued to be polluted as the number of people increased in the city, Muñoz said in the interview.
The skewed historical development of transportation in the country led us to the problems we are facing today. With the prioritization of land-based transportation, we have neglected a major transportation route that once held together the very metropolis we live in through big and small boats traversing it.
PAREX in the account of Ilog Pasig
One of the major problems heritage advocates and concerned citizens have against PAREX is its environmental impact. In a position paper of Renacimiento Manila against the proposed expressway, it cited the destructive impact of PAREX to the “existing life forms” found in the river and “losing the potential to rejuvenate them.” Aside from this, the heritage group also mentioned the enormous carbon footprint that will delay the country’s commitment to reduce it by 75 percent in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
Many heritage sites near or along the Pasig River are also put at risk with the construction and use of an expressway close to them. Renacimiento Manila has identified at least 200 cultural properties — both declared and presumed to be important cultural properties — that will be affected by the construction of the expressway along Santa Mesa, Makati, Mandaluyong, Taguig, and Pasig.
Why do we need to cover the river when the river itself could be considered as a unique mode of transportation, Muñoz asked during the interview. If we are to look at history, our major form of transportation was river-based before the shift to land-based transportation through motorized vehicles was prioritized.
Why not redevelop the river and re-accommodate river-based modes of transportation? Landscape Architect Paulo Alcazaren has been very vocal as well in his opposition to the elevated expressway and has proposed an alternative to it: a Pasig River Esplanade (PARES), similar to that of the Iloilo River Esplanade which he designed.
Without an explicit declaration, the Pasig River is presumed and rightfully understood by many as part of the country’s natural heritage. It is central to our history and culture because, as history reveals, our identity and culture as Tagalogs as well as our beliefs are based on the river, according to Muñoz.
Therefore, I share the sentiments of Renacimiento Manila who said that the construction of PAREX is a “huge disrespect to the Filipino nation” — it is a disrespect to Philippine history and culture. To cover the Pasig River with an expressway is like burying its rich history and forgetting what was once central to our culture and way of life.
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