Monday, August 27, 2012

The failed Venice of the Orient

Canal de la Reina
Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, according to her short overview of Quiapo's history, Margarita de los Reyes-Cojuangco writes that the inextricably linked esteros of Manila gave the city the claim of being an "Oriental Venice."

And I am one of those who ask, "What happened?"

Supposedly, there is a diverse database from which to draw the answer to my question, according to the essay, The Changes Through Time in Quiapo's Esteros by William E. Reynolds and Evelyn J. Caballero (Quiapo: Heart of Manila, edited by Fernando Nakpil Zialcita). This is comprised of historical documents dating from the Spanish period, magazine articles and professional papers, maps from the Spanish period to the present, interviews with Quiapo residents, and data on the pollution of esteros.  Whew!

Anyway, esteros are the broadened seaward end or extension of a river. They contain a mixture of fresh water from the river and salt water from the sea, and their water levels rise and fall with the tide. Throughout Manila's history, some thirty-five esteros totalling about twenty-one kilometers have been flowing into or have been associated with the Pasig River.

Produce from the farms of the suburbs accessible via the waterways was brought to Divisoria on boats, such as bancas and cascos that plied the esteros, which are now replaced by pedicabs and kuligligs that compete with other motor vehicles on the city's already congested streets.

In Noli Me Tangere, Jose Rizal wrote that the esteros served as bath, sewer, means of transportation, as well as for laundry and fishing -- "and even drinking water, if the Chinese water carrier found it convenient."

Historical records support Rizal's observations. They indicate that, indeed, during the Spanish era, practically all human refuse, garbage, and manufacturing wastes generated in the area found their way into the esteros. Obviously, the Spanish government was already burdened by this problem.

Spanish doctors, on the other hand, correlated many diseases with the amount of garbage and refuse being dumped into the esteros. Reports of epidemic had taken place, especially during the dry season when the water level was very low, exposing the bottom of the esteros. Medical authorities attributed the raging smallpox epidemic in Manila to the miasmas released by the water and mud in the esteros that were in the state of putrefaction.

The Spanish government developed a public sewer system, though limited in scope, that crisscrossed some of the more densely populated areas. However, liquid easily escaped through the loose slabs of stone that made up the drains. Also, a large number of drains from private houses emptied directly into the esteros. These rendered the esteros a serious health hazard.

Many programs were created by the Spanish government to improve the estero system, but insufficient funding prevented the construction of an underground sewer system. Unfortunately, the esteros were the only way to keep the city of Mania clean. After the Philippine Revolution, the American colonial government did what it could to correct this growing problem.

The esteros are a natural component of Manila. Before the area was heavily populated, the tides and seasonal changes refreshed the natural environment. When Manila became a major city, esteros acquired new uses. They became a means of transportation, communication, and regrettably, waste disposal.

Hence the people of Manila killed the city's estero system.

To date, the problem goes unresolved. As a Manila Times editorial had pointed out last September:

What little remains of canals or esteros will soon fade into memory. Eighty percent of esteros in Metro Manila, all bearing historic names, have drowned in human and commercial waste or taken over by squatters or small businesses.

Residents and transients have transformed our rivers, lakes, bays and canals into their personal toilet or kitchen sink. Squatters living on the riverbanks, coastal walls and lakeshores have no qualms throwing personal and family trash into waterways.

Most factories, plants, industrial and commercial establishments treat our rivers and lakes as an extension of their business activity.

The government, for decades, has talked a lot about rescuing the Pasig River and Manila Bay—to name two bodies of waters—and has rehabilitated them in fits and starts, with negligible results.

Nonetheless, despite the great damage we had created to our canal system, I am also one of those who ask, "Can we still fully rehabilitate our esteros and perhaps, make Manila the Oriental Venice as it once was?"

Suggested reads:

Manila Bulletin:  New Life for Manila Estero

Philippine Star: Where do we go from here

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Sharing with Blue Monday, Our World Tuesday, Weekend Reflections, NF Waters          


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I very much appreciate my articles and photos appearing on fellow bloggers' sites, popular broadsheets, and local broadcast news segments, but I would appreciate even more a request for permission first.
Thank you!


  1. Hello Eric,

    Thailand's capital city, Bangkok is called the "Venice of Asia" because of its canals, so as China's Suzhou is often dubbed the "Venice of the East." In fact The City of Manila should be called Venice of Asia for the city has more canals or esteros than Bangkok and Suzhou. Perhaps the title Venice of Asia was not given to Manila because Intramuros, then was the Manila they knew, minus the districts that are now part of Metro Manila.

    Ermita have Estero Balete. San Nicolas and Binondo have Estero de Binondo extends to Estero de la Reina, Ongpin, Gandara,Estero de la Industria, crosses Soler street ends at Reina Regente. Tondo have the wide Estero de Vitas, Ampioco, Patria, Estero Sunog Apog, Herbosa, Moriones, Estero Teneria, Abukay, Molave, Bambang, Estero de San Lazaro, and Estero de Magdalena. Quiapo have Estero de Quiapo and Estero de San Sebastian. Sampaloc have the San Juan River and Estero de Valencia. San Miquel, where The Malacanang Palace is located is surrounded by The Pasig River. Paco have Estero de Paco, Estero Concordia, Estero Balete and Estero Provisor. Santa Cruz have Estero de la Reina and Estero de San Lazaro. Pandacan have two esteros named Estero de Pandacan. Malate have Estero San Antonio Abad. Lastly, Santa Ana have Estero de Santa Clara and Estero Tripa de Gallina. These canals or esteros, I mentioned are located in the City of Manila, not counting the rivers, esteros and canals of the now Metro Manila. Basically Manila is surrounded by water, from Manila de Bay & Laguna de Bay which flows to the main artery, Pasig River, that meets Manila Bay.

    Best regards to you my dear friend Eric!

    1. Mabuhay, Ka Tony! Indeed, it's delightful to have you visit and post a comment.

      This issue of our pitiful esteros in Manila came to mind once again because of the recent flooding in Manila. That was mainly due to incessant monsoon rainfalls, not a typhoon.

      And what the Metro Manila's various officials are proposing, except for the mayor of Makati, is to relocate all of the squatters who live in their shanties along the esteros and waterways.

      I don't know if we can ever rehabilitate our esteros and indeed become the Venice of Asia, since many residents had paved over some esteros and built their houses. One of which is Matapang Street between Azcarraga and Bilibid Viejo in Quiapo.

      Nonetheless, Gina Lopez is one advocate, and together with Mayor Lim, they were able to rehabilate and beautify one stretch from Quirino Avenue in Sta. Ana to Padre Faura.

      I'm hopeful, though :)

  2. Lol, I was about to ask "What happened?" too when I saw your question while reading the post.

    My blues are here and here.

    1. I'm sure others got the same reaction ... hehehe :)

  3. Wow! I really enjoyed reading about Manila. So very sad what has happened! Thank you for the fabulous history lesson. dix in Texas--

    1. Hi Dix,

      I'll be posting more Manila stories ... stay tuned!


  4. This is a nice and informative post, Tito Eric! Thank's for sharing.

    Visiting from Blue Monday- hope you can stop by..

    1. You're welcome, Cassandra. Your daughter looked all ready for school there in your Monday Blues pic.

  5. Thanks for sharing your blues.

    Happy Blue Monday, Tito.

  6. Greetings to you Ka Eric!

    Hope you're doing well. I love your new blog "Turning Boholano" but I do miss "Senor Enrique." The first thing I did when I got a rare chance to go home was to take the Pasig Ferry from Guadalupe to Jones Bridge. It was a big let down for me cuz I was expecting the ferry to go as far as North Harbor, where Pasig River meets Manila Bay. Was excited our ferry to pass by Muelle de la Industria & Del Pan Bridge, where I spent my childhood. But at any rate, I was happy to see how clean Pasig River now than it was when I left our beloved country.

    Our yearly flooding, is also giving a yearly discussion for our corrupt government to start a project with "pondo" that will go to their pockets. The poor with their "basura" which our government responsibility to collect, are always the scape goat! How about our city planners who allowed (because of "lagay") the subdivision owners & factory owners to reclaim rivers, esteros & canals that changed the course of these body of water? Cutting trees, cementing long roads & highways accessible to potential property buyers, that the soil wouldn't be able to suck the water flood, marketing "development" & "progress!" But we never ask ourselves where are these rivers, esteros & canals going & of course they will look for another "lower path." Metro Manila, since the Kingdom of Maysapan, Tundo & Maynilad are surrounded by water, with rivers, sapa, esteros & canals coming from Manila de Bay & Laguna de Bay & on the north of the "taga-ilog" our kabalen "ka-pampang." Our city planners & the government knew all these ever ending problem, which they could have adopted the water system of Holland.

    Thanks once again Ka Eric, your voice & hoping our voices can be heard. Mabuhay ka!

    1. I plan to post more local history articles in the future, Ka Tony, and I'm hopeful you'll come visit and share your thoughts.

      There are some changes for the better that's going on in the country, and although we may not fully eradicate corruption during Aquino's administration, I hope fellow Filipinos will appreciate these changes and carry on the "clean-ups" in all levels after his term.


  7. A very informative post and quite a contrast between your first photo and your last. Water - when not used as a conveyer for waste and trash - is beautiful and adds so much to a landscapes desirability.

    1. I really hope that more efforts are put into water clean-up projects here in Metro Manila, Barb. And they start by clearing/relocating the squatters along the cities' waterways.