Revisiting the Iloilo River project

 Exactly a year has since passed when Ilonggo Senator Franklin M. Drilon set into motion the ambitious Iloilo River project to make this waterway a center of tourism and business activity for his hometown. Unfortunately, despite the heft and weight — politically speaking — put into the project by Drilon, the Iloilo River remains far from becoming a local version of the Singapore Quays upon which it is inspired. While the docks have been cleared of derelicts, and fishing boats have been shooed away from Muelle Loney, the dirtiness of the Iloilo River hasn’t changed at all.

Right now, the P70-million Esplanade Project designed by world-famous landscape architect Paolo Alcazaren is underway to serve as the centerpiece of the project. It is expected to be completed in another three months. But not too far away, beside the newly built Carpenters Bridge, could be seen the colony of shanties that provide a sharp contrast to the anticipated beauty of the Esplanade. True, the illegal fishpens are gone. These informal settlers are harder to dislodge, however. And the problem is that the city government under Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog has no clue where to relocate them.

Indeed, the Iloilo River project is supposed to be largely the responsibility of the local government. As things turned out, however, only Drilon seems to have done his part of the deal. The share of the work assigned to the local government hasn’t moved an inch. This must be a frustrating endeavor for Drilon, because everything he has committed for the project have been delivered. Unfortunately, much of what he is moving are stymied by the failure of Mabilog to do his part.

A clear case in point is the dredging of the Iloilo River. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported that the water quality of the waterway has deteriorated severely because of pollution. This situation was only aggravated by the sedimentation that has accumulated on the river bed, making it a lot shallower than it was before. The shallow depth of the river reduced its ability to let the ebb and flow of the tide to naturally discharge toxic substances out to the sea.

The dredging didn’t materialize not because of a lack in equipment. In fact, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) was quick on the draw, so to speak, in transferring its Visayas Dredge II equipment to Iloilo City within a few days after Drilon called up the agency’s top brass. Drilon knows how to flex his political muscle; that’s the reason his end of the bargain moved along the express lane.

But the dredging operations never got to start. After a year, the Visayas Dredge II equipment remains moored at its designated temporary disposal site near the Lopez-Quirino Bridge. Not a single drop of silt has been scooped out of the river bottom. Why? The city government couldn’t find a suitable place where to dump the dredged material. Nobody seems to be interested about looking for that. (Is it because nobody makes a commission?)

The dredging is an important component for the success of the river project. You can’t have a beautiful Esplanade and make do with a polluted, shallow river. The Esplanada is just a stage for viewing the majesty of the Iloilo River as Drilon fondly remembers it during his teen-aged days when he regularly swam across its then clean waters. It’s unfortunate Mabilog doesn’t consider it important enough.

There’s more to the issue of water quality. For over a year now, the DENR has warned about the dangerously high level of toxic material in the river, making it unfit for swimming. How can Drilon ever want to dive into its waters again? The culprit here is the unmitigated discharge of effluent material and even human waste from more than a hundred business establishments and even more houses in the city. The DENR has recommended remedial measures, like requiring wastewater treatment facilities for business establishments, before these are issued business permits. This recommendation has gone unheeded by Mabilog.

Of course, these things are already beyond the scope of Drilon’s participation in the project. It is his dream project, a legacy that he wants to leave behind once he bows out of public service. But his dream is being turned into a nightmare by Mabilog, who can’t seem to grasp the beauty of Drilon’s project. Mabilog is focused on completing the overpriced City Hall project to the neglect of the Iloilo River project and other equally important concerns. Drilon can’t be Mabilog’s baby sitter. Despite his stature, there are limits to what Drilon can do for the city.

The Iloilo River project isn’t just an infrastructure project. It is about projecting a positive image of community in Iloilo City, its way of life as a people. Too bad, the responsibility for leading that community rests with the City Mayor. In Mabilog, we’ve found an individual who falls short of the standard. He is mired in corruption issues. He gestures a lot, but accomplishes almost nothing. He is all form, and no substance.


About Manuel "Boy" Mejorada
Manuel "Boy" Mejorada is a journalist and social media activist. A former Iloilo provincial administrator, he is now waging a crusade against corruption and narco-politics.

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