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Revitalizing the Naga River

By Gabriel Hidalgo Bordado, Jr.

(This article formed part of the presentation made by the author, with Mayor John Bongat and City Planning and Development Officer Wilfredo Prilles Jr. at the 2nd Leadership in Local Government Program at the National University of Singapore last May 30, 2011. The program was sponsored by the World Bank Institute (WBI) and the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SMFA). Incidentally, Team Naga (Bicol)-Philippines  was adjudged by the WBI and the SMFA as the top performing team in the first edition of the program in 2010, which drew participants from 5 nations.)

Bordado, Prilles and Bongat in Singapore forum.

When the Naga River overflowed at the height of typhoon Bebeng’s fury, 22 out of the 27 barangays of Naga City were inundated, Wforcing more than a thousand  families to seek shelter and surcease in strategically located evacuation centers in this heartland of Bicol.


Bane or boon, the river has been inextricably intertwined with the history of the ancient city formerly named Ciudad de Nueva Caceres, one of the five original Spanish settlements in the country established way back in 1586. The river actually bisects the city into two distinct districts. In the olden days, the northern district was the seat of the local civil Spanish government and the Catholic ecclesiastical entity whose power and influence, according to historical records, spanned as far as Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon. On the other hand, Chinese merchants and artisans, along with the natives, congregated in the southern district.

Beyond its historicity, the 1.5- kilometer (even stretching up to 15 kilometers at its headwaters, according to a technical paper) Naga River plays a significant economic role, irrigating the city’s fertile upland barangays where vegetables and other cash crops thrive, and nurturing the once expansive ricefields of the lowlands. It is also the venue of the annual fluvial procession in honor of Bicolandia’s patroness, Our Lady of Peñafrancia. Incidentally, this devotion, which draws almost a million devotees, has  been going on for 300 uninterrupted years, its tercentenary having been marked last year.


Despite (or because of) its strategic importance, the Naga River has to contend with siltation, pollution and attendant problems spawned by human transgressions all through the decades. Now, it is a mere shadow of its former self with a water quality barely sustaining aquatic life. During the incumbency of Mayor (now Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary) Jesse Robredo, he implemented the “Save the Naga River” program aimed at reversing the deleterious effects of the unhampered and, for certain periods in history, unregulated use of the waterway. It proved to be an uphill battle until last year when Naga, still under the stewardship of Mayor Robredo, was selected, through a highly competitive process, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore and the World  Bank Institute  to  represent  (along with Quezon City) the Philippines  in  the 5-nation executive program on leadership in local government codenamed DARE (decision, action  and  results) piloted at the prestigious National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.


“This program begins with the premise that urbanization is a driving force for change in the world. Cities are engines of growth, but they also pose serious challenges for governance and infrastructure for economic growth and quality,” Dr. Astrid Tuminez, assistant dean for executive education of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said in her welcome remarks.

According to Dr. Tuminez, the city government officials “will play a key role in creating structures and implementing strategies for more inclusive growth and development.” But she posed some intriguing queries regarding fund sourcing, upgrading service delivery and quality of life of city residents, and getting the support of the people to sustain development programs and projects.

The DARE course, as pointed out by Dr. Tuminez, would try to enchance the participants’ knowledge and skills while at the same time encouraging them to “learn from the experience of Singapore and from direct exposure to this city-state.” She also advised them to “network with one another to share insights and explore opportunities for mutual support and learning in the future.”


Team Naga (as it was dubbed in Singapore) was composed of then incoming and now Mayor John G. Bongat, a lawyer; City Planning and Development Office (CPDO) Chief  Wilfredo  Prilles  Jr.,   a graduate  of   Cambridge University; City  Engineer  Leon Palmiano IV, concurrently the dean of the college of engineering of a local university; City Budget Officer Francisco Mendoza, who also handles the city’s agriculture portfolio; and this contributor. After the 10-day  DARE Course, the  team audaciously  unveiled what would be known as the Naga River Revitalization Project (NRRP).


Among other things, the project will entail the crafting of a comprehensive urban infrastructure program, the physical upgrading of the riverbanks, and the establishment of water treatment facilities to address river pollution. The CPDO contends that the NRRP will dovetail with the initiatives “in poverty alleviation as well as good governance and responsible citizenship” with the end in view of enhancing the city’s “livability.”

The proposed project, widely acclaimed in Singapore, was certainly not a flash on the pan- or a ripple in the river. Lawyer Bongat (by then a full-fledged mayor) and the rest of Team Naga were determined to implement it. Barely three weeks after their Singapore sojourn, they managed to get a resolution from the City Council declaring the revitalization of the Naga river as a top priority project of the city government of Naga. The Catholic Church, through Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legaspi himself, also expressed unequivocal support for the project. By all indications, the project was off to a good start.

Bongat then issued an executive order creating a multi-sectoral task force headed by the CPDO to oversee the implementation of the project. The new mayor decided to take the  bull by  its horn,  so to speak,  and address  head-on the “squatters problem,”  i.e. the informal settlers on the riverbanks. And he was taken aback by the settlers’ willingness to pull out of the restricted area for as long as they would be given by the city government a place where they could re-settle.

In the ensuing months, partnerships with other sectors were forged, a conceptual design contest launched, consultations in the 10 riverine barangays conducted, and the “Run for Naga River” series held to further raise public awareness. Negotiations with the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) and the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) are underway to secure technical and financial assistance.

THE 3 A’s

For sure, the project won’t be a walk in the park—although miniparks and walkways along the riverbanks will form part of the grand design. As pointed out in the DARE program, one needs the 3 A’s—authority, acceptance and ability – to insure the success of  any undertaking. The NRRP apparently has the authority, with no less than the city government of Naga, the Roman Catholic Church, and even the Regional Development  Council backing it up.

Public acceptance on the other hand, has been gaining tremendous headway with almost all sectors of the community endorsing the project. The ability angle, however, remains a bit hazy considering the estimated $8 million capital outlay for a project cycle spanning five years. But the World Bank had noted the arnestness of Team Naga and the vast potentials of NRRP.

In a letter dated April 14, 2011 and addressed to Mayor Bongat, WB official Jose Eduardo Campos disclosed that “ over the course of a 12 month follow-up, the Naga City Leadership Team continually impressed the DARE program with plans to revitalize the Naga River. Specifically, we were impressed by your team’s enthusiasm to identify adaptive leadership and communication strategies to address the Naga City River Challenges.” He likewise informed the mayor that Team Naga was selected by the WB and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as the top performing team in the first ever DARE program in 2010.

All these may augur well for “the river that runs through the heart of Bicol”, as one blogger aptly puts it. And with some help from Ina (the Bicolano term of endearment for Our Lady of Peñafrancia), it can truly be transformed into the river of life.