Water Health Educator
Issues: Latin America
Sewage Water Pollution in Peru
by Katherine Fite
In the South American coastal country of Peru, almost half of the population is impoverished. Although many have migrated to cities for the prospect of better living, thousands of people still remain in rural areas where they live well below the poverty line. Due to the extreme poverty, these people lack clean drinking water supply. Rural populations depend on local rivers, lakes, and streams as their source of water and inadequate sanitation and wastewater treatment systems significantly compromises the intergrity of the water supply. Sewage pollution is one of the biggest sources of pollution in Peru’s waterways.
Poor water quality and sanitation methods can be detrimental to human health and can cause water related infections and diseases. For instance, in 1991, Peru was hit with a cholera epidemic. Cholera, which is a water borne illness, spread rapidly throughout the country. Raw waste and sewage that contained cholera was discharged into surrounding water systems. Rural people used this contaminated water not only as drinking water, but also to irrigate their crops.
As a result, contaminated food as well as water became a new mode of transportation of the disease and cholera ran rampant. Wastewater treatment was non-existent and even hospitals that treated patients with cholera would dispose of pure waste into the nearby water system. The epidemic eventually passed, but it was evident that the country had a serious problem with clean water, mainly due to lack of adequate sanitation and wastewater treatment facilities.
Today, Peru is trying to make clean water and wastewater treatment a top priority. Peru’s National Sanitation has allocated $4 billion dollars to create and update wastewater treatment facilities throughout the country, concentrating their efforts in small rural communities. They have also sought international help from countries such as Canada and Spain to help in alleviating sewage waste problems and pollution issues.
These changes are a good start but there are new challenges the Peruvian government faces everyday. A booming population, economy, and urbanization are all creating obstacles to accessing clean water supply.
Pollution in Guatemala's Lake Atitlan
by Emily Bremer
Lake Atitlán is considered one of the most picturesque places in Central America, and a frequent tourist destination, but it also plays a key role in local everyday life, for economics like fishing and recreation like boating. However, in recent years Lake Atitlán has become increasingly polluted, filled with trash, raw sewage, chemical run off and other contaminants.
According to biologist Margret Dix, “Every year one million cubic meters of untreated raw sewage enters the lake; 109,500 metric tons of litter – 3 pounds of solid waste per person, per day – and 110,000 metric tons of soil is lost due to erosion”. T
he pollution has greatly affected life in the area, as people dependent on the water get increasingly sick, lose their food source, and often their income, as less tourists come to the area due to the health implications of the contamination. The pollution has caused large blooms of cyanobacteria to appear, the first noticeably large bloom occurred in 2008. Cyanobacteria often releases harmful toxins and deplete the oxygen levels in the water so other organisms cannot survive.
Currently, the government has increased funding for clean-up efforts centered on the Yo soy Atitlán program. The program hopes to, “… encourage as many people as possible from the government and nongovernmental organizations, as well as environmental experts, communities around the lake and academic institutions to get involved and debate the challenges and goals for Lake Atitlán over the coming years, (Bevan).” Hopefully, efforts like these will restore the health of the lake and keep such a beautiful landmark from being destroyed.
Water Scarcity in La Paz, Bolivia
By Elizabeth Hanfman
The land-locked South American country of Bolivia has experienced multiple issues concerning the access to water over the past decade. After fighting against the privatization of the water supply, the country is now faced with a severe water shortage. This problem is apparent in both urban and rural areas however the capital city of La Paz has been especially hard hit due to the rapid influx of people from rural areas who are not able to continue growing crops without an adequate water supply. Despite moving to the city due to the shortage of water, up to one quarter of the city population does not have access. Because a disproportionate number of those affected are poor and this has led to growing tension.
La Paz is the world's highest capital. Approximately 40% of the drinking water in La Paz comes from melting Andean glaciers. Numerous experts and institutions have used models to predict how long these glaciers are expected to remain. Edson Ramirez, a glaciologist from the University of San Andres in La Paz, predicted in 2005 that the 18,000 year old Chacaltaya glacier, which overlooked La Paz, would be gone by 2015. Instead, it disappeared in 2009, years faster than predicted, leaving behind an abandoned ski lodge which used to serve the world's highest ski resort from 1939 to 2005. A 2008 World Bank report stated that due to climate change, many of the glaciers in the Andes would be eliminated within 20 years.
Other signs of climate change in Bolivia include longer droughts with later and shorter rainy seasons along with the retreating glaciers and other changing weather patterns. According to Bolivia's National Meteorological and Hydrological Service, the rainy season had decreased from six to three months in recent years. In 2009, Lake Titicaca, which supplies almost three million Bolivians with water, was at its lowest level since 1949.
It is unclear how much of a role climate change has had in reducing the water supply due to other confounding factors involved. As mentioned above, the influx of rural populations to urban areas can exacerbate the water problems within the cities. Also, transnational corporations are influential in Bolivia and the large scale extraction of mining resources and hydrocarbons affect the environment. Although Bolivians won the battle against the privatization of water after declaring water a basic right, they are still left with poor water management due to the lack of money and resources available.
The water scarcity problem in La Paz is evident however it is not evident what should be done to alleviate it. The governor of the La Paz region has considered moving people to other parts of Bolivia including areas in the north where there are rainforests. Also, engineering new solutions is an option, which includes building new reservoirs and tapping underground sources. Time and money constraints could prevent this from happening though- especially since it takes approximately five to seven years to build a well-designed reservoir. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, believes the United Nations (UN) should declare access to potable water and basic sanitation to be a universal human right however many countries are wary of this becoming a UN initiative due to the potential responsibility of providing water and basic sanitation to all of their citizens. In the meantime, Morales organized a Ministry of Water in Bolivia tasked with identifying solutions to their dire water scarcity.
The State of the Environment in El Salvador
by Elizabeth Hanfman
With two thirds of the population living on less than $2 a day, El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. It is very small, densely populated and according to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), it is second to only Haiti in its level of environmental degradation. Only about 13 percent remains forested and 30 percent of its surface water has disappeared in the last 20 years due to deforestation and erosion. The country also faces the lack of public infrastructure investment and is experiencing population growth.
The world water security threshold is 1,500 cubic meters per person per year and access for El Salvadorians is very close to this level at 1,700 cubic meters. It ranks last in Latin America for piped water coverage and it has been estimated that of the 2.9 million people living in rural areas, 1.5 do not have access to reliable water sources. Seventy percent of water consumption in this country is used for agriculture and unfortunately water saving techniques are not commonly used in this sector. Access has been improving however the accessible water is still lacking in quality. In addition to using the most water, the agricultural sector is also one of the biggest polluters. Pollution sources include pesticides (for example DDT and Gramoxon which are used in El Salvador but banned in many other countries), untreated domestic and industrial waste disposal and fecal bacteria contamination. One study estimated that about 90 percent of the surface water is polluted and only 2 percent is acceptable for drinking, irrigation or recreational use. Due to the lack of treatment systems in some areas, there are no regulations for dumping wastewater from industry, agriculture and urban sewage into lakes and rivers.
There are promising indicators that this country is making progress towards increased environmental protection. The El Salvadorian government has recently stood up to a mining company that could have caused further environmental degradation to the country. In 2002, the Pacific Rim Mining Company (PRMC) obtained a license for exploratory operations in Cabañas. If the country allowed for gold extraction at this site they would have faced increased pollution in the Lempa River, the primary water source for more than half of the country’s population, and decreased water supply to locals due to the massive amounts of water used for mining. In addition, the Cabañas area is prone to earthquakes which could lead to cracks in the containers used for holding the mixture of water and cyanide used to separate gold from rock. A study cited that Cabañas natives had already noticed reduced access to water, pollution and health issues during the exploratory phase. Also, no monetary benefits would come from the mine since the jobs created would require skills the locals did not have and the mine would anyways only be operational for six years. After El Salvador refused to approve an extraction permit in 2008, PRMC sued for $77 million based on arguments of investor rights. The case is still pending.
Winning the case against Pacific Rim would be a great step forward for El Salvador. This would discourage international corporations from attempting to take advantage of the natural resources that are left in the country. Because the presence of some industry is inevitable, an emphasis should be placed on their use and abuse of water which is not currently taxed and there are no regulations on wastewater treatment. The country would also need to invest in infrastructure that would allow for appropriate treatment. There are more than 30 laws surrounding water policy but not one of them focuses on only it. Until there are laws that regulate the use of water by various groups as well as the infrastructure and regulatory bodies in place, there will always be uneven distribution for industry and citizens. The pollution caused by unregulated use has led to a severe shortage of potable water which is necessary to the health and well-being of the El Salvadorian population.