Biomatrix – transformation in the Philippines


forum future logoA short article in Green Futures, published by Forum for the Future, with a spectacular double page spread photograph prompted a web search.

The website of Habitat International Coalition, which has been active in the area, relates that Paco Market, on the edge of the Estero de Paco, was once a bustling center of commerce. Local fisherman took their day’s catch directly from the ocean down the Pasig River to Estero de Paco, one of its largest tributaries.

biomatrix manila before

After WWII, the Pasig River began to become polluted and the Paco Market was neglected for years; the market vendors threw all their garbage and waste into the river and squatters moved in, building directly on the banks of the sewers, impeding the flow and ‘further deteriorating the water quality’.

Pasig River

Within a year, the Paco market and Estero de Paco have been transformed into a world-class market and a clean tributary. The garbage was removed by the River Warriors – volunteers living beside the waterways -who cleaned the water with small nets and ensured that no more garbage is thrown into the river. The shores now have vetiver grass growing to prevent erosion and coir has been mixed with a helpful bacteria to decompose garbage and treat the waste water and sludge. Air is being pumped in so that the water can sustain life and fish can return.

bio manila treatment tanks

But Paul Miles of the FT adds: “However improved it may appear, this stretch of water at the head of the Pasig still flows with raw sewage, especially during the rainy season. It has been a problem for decades: Manila’s sewage infrastructure was not designed to cope with the present population of 12m inhabitants.”

The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC), a government body, has been working on reviving the biologically dead waterway since 1999 and the ABS-CBN Foundation, the charitable arm of the country’s largest media company, has also added the city’s waterways to its causes. The project has popular support. In October 2010, 116,000 people ran in a sponsored race through Manila at 5am, raising 10m pesos.

Squatters were relocated

Squatters along the shores were relocated to Laguna, Philippines, given affordable housing options and livelihood training for their move. More than 1,000 families have been willingly relocated, but there has been some opposition: “Poor people will be removed; factories, warehouses and homes of the rich will not be touched because the owners would have to be compensated and the government lacks such funds. A cabinet official has promised however that no poor families will be moved till we are ready to move against the rich also”.

Paco market redesigned

A centre was created inside the Paco market to provide education about the rehabilitation efforts. The market has natural lighting and no air-conditioning to conserve energy. Vendors are charged rent to ensure that the market is able to sustain itself but not enough to cause a burden. It sells products made by the relocated squatters, providing a source of income for them.

Second phase: the installation of technology developed by Biomatrix Water, a Scottish environmental engineering company

biometrix logoAlthough the waterway looks much better, the water in the Paco has a pollution concentration typically of around 50% of raw sewage according to Galen Fulford, managing partner at Biomatrix, which has been collaborating with Filipino company Coco Technologies and other local public and private agencies.

The technology was developed by the three-year-old company in Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland – the first place in Europe to instal a treatment system called Living Machine, similar to a reed-bed purification system but in a greenhouse and covering a smaller surface area. Sewage is treated as it passes through a series of tanks, containing different bacteria, flora and fauna. Biomatrix’s system for treating polluted rivers develops this idea.

Information from Galen Fulford, managing partner at Biomatrix, which has collaborated with Filipino company Coco Technologies and other local public and private agencies:

bio manila treatment video

The company’s Active Island Reactors (see video) are “fully engineered powerful water treatment systems” that float on the water and are filled with water-loving plants such as papyrus and bulrush, and a system of “dynamic media columns”. These, along with the plants’ roots, create a large surface area below the water’s surface, on which bacteria form cleansing “biofilms”.

Although some electricity will be needed to pump the water, there will be a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions: by encouraging aerobic digestion, the amount of methane produced, which is some 23 times more damaging than CO2, will be “greatly reduced”. Four Active Island Reactors, covering 110 sq metres, are being placed in a section of the Estero de Paco. The work they will do is equivalent to a sewage treatment plant for up to 2,000 people and they will also cope, to some extent, with industrial waste.

The message: water treatment systems that don’t take up any space on land, and look beautiful too, are clearly the way to go

Across the world, urban waterways are dying as rural-urban migration leads to cities growing faster than the infrastructure can cope. Developed nations are not immune to this.

While the River Thames is much cleaner than it was, according to Thames Water, on average, 39m tonnes of untreated sewage overflows into the river each year when London’s Victorian sewers become overloaded.


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