By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor

The country’s top food and beverage conglomerate continues its forays into infrastructure development with an ambitious revival project on the river that cuts through of Metro Manila — which has been considered as a hopeless case.

The San Miguel Corp. (SMC) last week unveiled its plan to revive the Pasig River by turning it into an alternate transport system for goods and people.

SMC’s PHP95.4-billion (US$1.9 billion) Pasig River Expressway (Parex) project will begin with a clean-up drive to clear the 25-kilometer long waterway that stretches from Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay.

SMC President Ramon Ang said Parex “is a solution within a solution,” since it will not only help alleviate traffic congestion in the National Capital Region but also bring back to life the biologically dead river.

Of Parex, Ang said: “Of all the projects we have done, this will perhaps be among the most challenging and at the same time, the most fulfilling. Not only will we be building a much-needed direct link between eastern and western Metro Manila but we will also be leading a historic effort to bring the Pasig River back to health.”

Aside from Parex, SMC is also building an international airport in Bulacan province, intended to ease the heavily congested Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The PHP734-billion (US$14.68 billion) Bulacan International Airport is SMC’s single biggest infrastructure project to-date.

The Parex project entails the construction of a 19.4-kilometer, six-lane elevated expressway along the banks of Pasig River. This will require the riverbed to be dredged and cleared of debris and garbage to attain optimum depth and ensure the constant flow of water, as well as ease the flooding problem of the metropolis.

The SMC head recalled that even in his youth, the river “had always been synonymous to pollution. Many Filipinos have long wanted to clean it and revive it, bring it back to its old glory. There were even high-profile fund-raising projects and similar initiatives to clean it. But unfortunately, not much has changed.”

Parex will start from Radial Road 10 in the capital city of Manila and end at a connection to the Southeast Metro Manila Expressway AKA Circumferential Road. Parex is projected to cut travel time from Manila to Rizal province to just 15 minutes.

The project aims to provide an alternative and quicker access to the country’s largest business districts, namely Makati, Ortigas and Bonifacio Global City.

Pasig River cuts through the cities of Mandaluyong, Pasig, Manila, Taguig and Makati.

Various administrations have sought to revive Pasig, with little success. The latest attempt was the creation of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, which existed from 1999 to 2019.

The Duterte administration dissolved the body last year and transferred its functions to the Manila Bay Task Force and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

As far back as the martial law era of then President Ferdinand Marcos, his wife former First Lady Imelda Marcos, also attempted but failed to revive the historic river. To this day, Pasig River is considered biologically dead, meaning it is unable to sustain life.

In the Spanish and American periods up to pre-World War II, the Pasig River was considered so clean that residents of the cities and towns it passed through could swim in its waters, which was also teeming with life.

In the post-World War II years, however, countless manufacturing plants and factories, as well as residents, began dumping their waste into the river, making Pasig one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.

The SMC project is the first time that a private company has taken the initiative to clean the river.