This is a folow up post to the introduction to the Teqauendama Falls post I did a while ago, unfortunately this is not about the outstanding scenery of the falls but about the extremely poluted Rio Bogota that affects not only what should be one of Colombia's touristic spotlights, but also - and more importantly - represents a serious health hazard to the unprivileged people that live at its shores.
A phrase by The International Development Research Center, Canada says it all:
“The Tequendama Falls has the dubious honour of being the largest wastewater falls in the world…Liquid wastes from the city are flushed untreated into the Bogotá River at the lower edge of the sabana, a few kilometres upstream of the Tequendama Falls. Downstream from Bogotá, the river is filled with sewage…”
Besides promoting touristic destinations in Colombia, my Colombia Travel Blog also wants to help create conciousness about how important is to respect the enviroment and our frail eco system when visiting a site. It is a shame that we have the doubios honor to have the second most pulluted river in the world , as supporters of Fundacion Rio Urbano ( a Waterkeeper alliance member) we joined a group of Rio Urbakno members, See Colombia Travel staffers and an American friend I met in Bogota a few days before during a Trek . The objective was to realize how seroious the situation of the river is as well as help us understand the many reasons that have caused this eco tragedy.
Thanks to my friend Lee Pera for letting me reproduce her post, you can read her whole chronicle about our visit below , and you can find her Bogota blog here:
Bogota River Tour with Fundacion Rio Urbano
Saturday I spent 12 hours touring various parts of the Bogota River with the director of the Fundacion Rio Urbano, who used to be the head of Colombia’s equivalent of the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Thanks to a Colombian woman I met on a hike I was invited along on this excursion (check out her blog about traveling in Colombia – http://colombia-travel-marcela.blogspot.com).
German, the director of Fundacion Rio Urbano, picked us up at 8am with tshirts and hats from the Foundation to wear, so I felt like we were this little investigation team!
We stopped off at various points along the river, which has been channelized in most areas throughout Bogota, before coming to the wastewater treatment plant (one more badly-needed plant is currently in construction), located just above the Muna reservoir.
According to German, the largest problem for the Bogota river is what is called pirate developers and/or pirate hookups. Bogota has grown rapidly and there are new residential developments all over the city. Many of the water hookups are done carelessly or with complete disregard for environmental compliance in order to save money. So, construction crews or developers will inadvertently or purposely hook up wastewater pipes from developments to stormwater drainage pipes which flow directly into the river.
You can smell this raw sewage along most points of the river. The smell was so strong farther downstream near the Muna reservoir and treatment plant that we didn’t even dare get out of the car!
Here’s a good description of the Muna reservoir and its history:
“Muna, once a pristine reservoir that attracted tourists for water sports and recreation, is now a source not only of mosquitoes, but also of foul odors, rats and gastrointestinal, respiratory, dermatological and other disorders, residents said.
The problems stemmed from a decision decades ago that allowed the Empresa de Energia de Bogota, a city-owned electricity company, to reroute the Bogota River away from its natural course and into Muna to supply water for two hydroelectric generating plants.
Now, the Bogota River is a stew of industrial waste, heavy metals and raw sewage due to industrial dumping and a dearth of waste treatment plants in Bogota and other towns that use the river to dispose of their sewage. As a result, Muna has become what Sibate councilman Alfonso Gonzalez calls “the world’s largest open sewer.” (Catholic News Service, 2005, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=12324)
Next stop was Tequendama Falls. The river here might look like any nice mountain stream, but it is still very polluted. The white foam you see in the picture below was a meter high a few weeks ago at the same spot.
Unfortunately the river still smelled even here among the lush mountains.
So far the trip had been quite depressing and overwhelming. Where does one even begin to help clean up the Bogota river when development goes unchecked, urban residents see it not as a river but as a garbage dump, and there is a severe lack of treatment facilities.
Tanneries and pollution near the headwaters
Our next stop was as close to the headwaters as we got. The river is still significantly polluted even this close to its source due to the hundred-some leather tanneries in the town that, until recently, dumped all of their chemical-laden water straight into the river. This is still a practice I’m sure, but some owners (like the ones we met) are putting in their own water treatment plants.
Unfortunately, the national development agency years ago suggested to the owners of tanneries that they begin to use chemicals to treat the leather instead of more ecologically friendly methods they had learned from their parents and grandparents. Then, years later, the environmental agency came and closed down their shops for violating environmental regulations. Unfortunately, the government did nothing to help them improve their operations. But a family we visited took out a loan and put in their own treatment system and, after two years of being closed, were allowed to open again.
The Leather Treatment Process
Scenes from the tannery town of Villapinzon