The Case of the Dying Rivers: A Largely-Underrated Problem in the Philippines

In Greek mythology there are naiads–river nymphs that are considered spiritual and physical embodiments of the rivers that they live in. They are close relatives of the nereids, the sea nymphs that serve the god Poseidon in his underwater palace.

Naiads have always been thought of as very beautiful women, usually teenagers, and have a big place in Greek (and later, Roman) mythology and culture. The thing about the Greeks is that they believe that there are spirits that reside in just about anything in nature. Dryads live in the trees, the Aureae represent the breezes, the Nephelae the clouds. Satyrs patrol and protect nature, and the god Pan himself is said to have an affinity for beating people with his reed pipes if they do anything to endanger Mother Earth.

So basically, nature has a soul. Souls, lots of them. This means that the Greeks believe that killing any part of nature is akin to killing human beings. Sometimes, it can even be said that killing any part of nature is worse than murder, since nature spirits have a direct line to the Olympian gods and they are gonna be pissed if they learn about what you did.

This is something I think the modern world can benefit from because we are slowly turning into a nature-killing machine every single day. And no, this is not some patronizing post about saving the environment or some self-righteous crap like that. I’m going to focus on one thing, and that is the plight of the naiads in the country and the rapidly-increasing number of dead and dying rivers.

Imagine the mighty Pasig river in the heart of Manila. Think of its beauty, its depth, and the number of communities that depend on its waters for livelihood and sustenance in general. Now imagine that might river slowly drying up until the only thing left on that once vast expanse of water is a dusty collection of rocks and dirt. Imagine all the families that will be affected, imagine it’s effect on the immediate ecosystem in general. Isn’t that a sad picture? That’s exactly what’s happening all over the country, but only a few know about it because it isn’t exactly earth-shattering news.

I’ve been seeing dead and dying rivers in Bicol since I was a kid but in the recent years, their numbers seem to have risen fast. During the long All Saints’ Day weekend, it seemed like every bridge I passed had a dying or dead river underneath it. And I don’t know about you but every time I saw one, I felt a bit of my soul die. It was heartbreaking how one of the most beautiful creations of nature just shriveled up and died.

It would be stupid, however, to believe that this is just the cycle of life. Sure, there are lots of documented instances where rivers just upped and died of their own accord. However, more often than not, it is because of human hands that these rivers died–human hands that choked the life out of naiads just so they would have something to sell and gain money from. Bastards.

There have been a lot of studies linking quarrying to the death of rivers all over the country. That study I linked to focuses on Palawan and the surrounding region, but the story is same elsewhere, especially in Bicol. Quarries are designed to extract rock and other minerals from deep underground, and the most common places where you’d find them are on mountainsides and on or beside rivers. The latter is problematic since the quarries disturb the ecosystem and, in extension, the natural flow of rivers.

If the quarry is managed well, it might add some dust to the river and that’s all. On the other hand, if you can find a mining venture in the Philippines that is managed well, you might also be able to prove the existence of the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. The study I linked to above asserts that about two-thirds of all the mining ventures in Palawan are owned and operated illegally and hence don’t give a damn about the environmental impacts of their actions.

“Illegal quarrying is undesirable for a number of reasons. One, the government loses revenues since these activities do not pay for related permits and taxes. Two, illegal quarrying forces the government to allocate scarce resources that could be spent elsewhere to track down and apprehend its operators. And three, illegal operators worsen an already bad environmental situation by violating quarrying rules such as the gathering aggregates in riverbanks, hauling more volume than what is sustainable in a given site, and extending quarrying operations into environmentally sensitive sites.”

My dad explained the effects of quarrying on rivers to me in the simplest terms. He said that rivers need a certain system in order to survive, and this includes several layers of stuff on the riverbed–the sediment, the bedrock, etc. Quarrying disrupts this system. If it is managed well, quarrying operations shouldn’t disrupt it much. However, check out that block quote above. ‘Hauling more volume than what is sustainable’, it says. That basically means that a huge chunk of quarries in the country bleeds rivers dry before they move on, effectively killing them in the process.

“What makes the case of illegal quarrying more disturbing is that these operations generally have a free hand in the conduct of said nefarious activities. Key informants mentioned that from time to time, illegal operators were caught and their equipment impounded. However, the penalty for their transgression was low and those caught were usually allowed to retrieve their equipment for a measly fee. Moreover, these operators were not brought to court and prosecuted.” (source)

I know quarrying doesn’t get as much attention as large mining ventures. For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about the big mining operations in the Philippines and their relation to violence, but I haven’t seen even a mention of illegal albeit small-time quarries that ruin the lives of people in the rural areas because of their greed.

Look at those rivers. Look at how beautiful they are. Are you really just gonna sit back and let them die?

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