Nicaragua: Cleaning up the worlds biggest toilet

MANAGUA, (IPS) - After dumping its untreated wastewater into lake Managua for more than 80 years, the capital of Nicaragua has started to clean up the huge source of water in this country, where 80 percent of fresh water sources are polluted.

'For 82 years we have turned Central America’s largest lake into the world’s biggest toilet,' Jaime Incer Barquero, a scientist and environmentalist, told IPS. 'We poison it every day with tons of feces and garbage, and now, at this pace, it will take 50 years or more to salvage.'

He said, however, that the new Augusto C. Sandino wastewater treatment plant inaugurated by President Daniel Ortega in late February on the shores of lake Managua (also known as lake Xolotlán, which means 'dedicated to the god Xólotl' in the Náhuatl language) is a huge step towards the aim of cleaning up the country’s water sources.

'The work deserves my respect,' he said. 'But there is still much to be done; this is just the first step in a good plan to rescue the country’s water sources. It will take more than 50 years to get to the point where the water can be used for consumption.'

Ruth Selma Herrera, president of the Empresa Nicaragüense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados - Nicaragua’s water and sewage utility - said the new plant is processing 132,000 cubic metres of wastewater a day, and will process 180,000 cubic metres a day when it reaches full operating capacity.

The wastewater from 60 chemical companies and Managua’s 1.2 million people has been dumped untreated into the lake from 17 drains since 1927, when the government ordered all sewage to be channeled into the lake until a new sewer system was built.

But the system was not in place until 2007, when 32 kilometres of underground drainage and sewage pipes running to the treatment plant were completed.

'It is an old dream of the Nicaraguan people to salvage the beautiful gifts that God gave this land of lakes and volcanoes and, thanks to God, the government and friendly countries, we are giving a start to that dream,' Herrera remarked to IPS.

Work on the plant began in 1997, with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the governments of Germany and other European countries, and the Nicaraguan treasury. The total cost was 85.5 billion dollars.

More than 120,000 users of the sewage system are now connected to the treatment plant, which will begin to ease pollution of the 1,040 square kilometre lake which is located in western Nicaragua, near the Pacific coast.

Herrera announced that another sewage network would be built, to hook up the districts of Ticuantepe and Veracruz, as well as outlying areas to the south of the capital, with the new treatment plant.

In 1969, the dictatorship of General Anastasio Somoza (1967-1979) declared the western shore of the lake, where 20 different Managua neighbourhoods were located, as uninhabitable due to the health risks.

Environmentalist Incer Barquero said the clean-up process is on the right track. 'By treating the water bacteriologically, the main factors that produce bad smells and colours, from sewage, are eliminated, and at least the landscape changes and the lake will recover its normal colour, little by little,' he said.

But 'here in the Pacific coastal region there are five large lagoons and two lakes, and with the exception of Asososca lagoon, which provides the capital with water, the rest are unprotected and exposed to pollution,' he added.

According to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, 80 percent of the country’s water sources are polluted to some degree. That includes the Xiloá, Nejapa, Tiscapa, Venecia and Apoyo lagoons and the large Managua and Cocibolca lakes.

In 2006, the Latin American Water Tribunal, an ethical tribunal created in Central America in 1998 that hands down non-binding rulings, found Nicaragua guilty of neglecting and deteriorating its water resources, mainly for allowing the mining industry to pollute the San Juan river, which runs out of lake Cocibolca and into the Caribbean sea.

The Ortega administration has plans to bolster the tourism potential of lake Managua. Last year, the national port authority opened two ports on the lake, and now offers scenic boat rides.

In the medium term, the Construction Ministry foresees the creation of a coastal road, which would link the country’s Pacific coastal departments (provinces) and serve as a scenic drive along the shores of lake Managua.

Managua Mayor Alexis Argüello told IPS that with development aid from Spain, the La Chureca municipal garbage dump will be converted into a plant for the treatment and recycling of the solid waste that has gone into the dump along the edge of the lake for over 30 years.

In 2007, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources launched a national reforestation campaign that includes the rivers and basins around the lake – a measure that is essential to improving the ability of the lake’s water sources to capture water.

The Health Ministry said that now that the treatment plant has begun to operate, it hopes to eliminate 170 swamps that form every year in areas around the lake and that are a source not only of bad odours but of illnesses like malaria and dengue fever, and of flies, which increase the incidence of diarrhea among children.

Nicaraguan Vice President Jaime Morales said the project to clean up lake Managua is 'one step more towards compliance with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).'

Nicaragua will have to provide clean water and sanitation to at least 2.5 million of its 5.8 million people by 2015, to meet the drinking water target, one of the eight MDGs adopted by the international community in 2000.

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; ensuring environmental sustainability; the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and poor.