Walking through a driedup riverbed that leads into LakeCocibolca, Granada’s environmental inspector, Francisco Barquero, looks like he’s going to vomit.
It’s his job to report the residents who pollute by dumping waste and trash into streams that feed into the great lake.
Tubes jutting out from homes spit runoff waters down into the brook; while others discharge raw sewage. Riverbed sand robbed for construction leaves behind ditches where sewage collects in stagnant cesspools.
Barquero steps around used toilet paper. This is the daunting and disgusting task of environmental conservationism in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
“It’s poverty. People are busy finding something to eat and they destroy the natural resources in the process,” said Jaime Incer, Nicaragua’s top environmentalist.
The recent recipient of the National Geographic-Buffet Award, Incer has been pushing conservation efforts in the country from a time when Nicaragua had virtually no trained scientists or infrastructure. As environment minister in the 1990s, he had some success helping to protect some 18% of Nicaraguan territory. But more than a decade later, the vast majority of natural resources he fought for are now protected on paper only.
Despite Nicaragua’s tough environmental laws, authorities have been slow to enforce them and say stricter laws are needed.
Late last year, a law went into effect creating the Cocibolca and San Juan River Basin Sustainable Development Commission, an ambitious attempt to bring together five ministries and 36 municipalities to conceive and implement a national water plan to manage the 47,000 square-kilometer lake basin, home to 1 million residents. Then, Nicaragua’s Water Law was put into effect, declaring waterways public domain, and creating a national water authority.
Months later, the new Water Authority still hasn’t been created and the commission’s first meeting isn’t scheduled until April.
“The laws are given no budget,” Incer said. Technical solutions are in the making, with a $100 million sewage treatment project coming on-line in the lakeside cities of Granada and Managua by 2009.
But in the long term, education is needed to undo a culture of littering, experts say.
“People throw their sewage, their trash, their plastic bags and dead dogs into the drainage system. That putrid water will flow into the lakes,” says an animated Incer.
Green from Brown
Marcielano Jiminez, an engineer with the Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Authority (ENACAL), says he “doesn’t recommend” swimming in LakeManagua.
Not only are there 1,200 tons of trash dumped daily into an open-air landfill next to the lake, but 40 million gallons of raw sewage flows into the lake every day at 17 different locations along the shore.
More than a decade ago, ENACAL designed a master plan to improve Managua’s wastewater treatment pipe system. But a year later, Hurricane Mitch hit and flooded the lake and waterlogged the government’s plans.
Now a second plan is in the works, scheduled for completion by the end of the year, to build another plant to reduce by half the fecal contamination draining into the lake.
The $80 million project with a state-ofthe- art biotreatment plant – funded by German development bank KfW, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Nicaraguan government – will be the biggest of its kind in the region.
ENACAL engineers are refurbishing and laying 35 kilometers of pipe, which will connect the 900-kilometer Managua sewer system to the plant’s six pumping stations and sedimentation facility, where the water will be filtered before being dumped into the lake.
The process will produce 90 tons of “ecofriendly sludge” each day that will likely be used to fertilize nearby farmland. The process will also produce methane gas, 30% of which will be recycled back into the plant’s energy system.
Scheduled for inauguration in 2009, the plant will serve 900,000 residents and will bring Managua’s sewer coverage to 50%, a number Jiminez hopes to have at 75% by 2025.
In Granada, the Health Ministry currently dumps 15 gallons of chlorine a day into rivers running into Lake Cocibolca in efforts neutralize potential health threats to swimmers, according to epidemiologist Gloria Poveda.
Signs are put up during tourism high season discouraging swimmers in heavily polluted areas.
Though only 25% of residents are hooked up to the sewage system, solutions are on the horizon. A $21 million plan to expand the city’s treatment plant, train ENACAL personnel and improve the 40-year-old sewage network is underway.
Granada mayor Rosalia Castrillo said the project has been delayed in past years due to disagreements between financiers and local authorities, but says construction will “hopefully” begin by November.
Meanwhile, Castillo is using $600,000 in Spanish aid to connect Granada’s Calle La Calzada – a strip of restaurants and hotels leading down to the lake – to the city’s sewage system.
A year ago, La Calzada was routing its sewage into the city drains, which flow into the lake. The municipality has been helping businesses and residents set up septic tanks. By next year, the street should be connected to Granada’s “mother pipe.”
Castrillo also said the Education Ministry is trying to infuse environmentalism into school curriculum here, and says there are plans to get funding from BANCENTRO and Lafise banks to clean up the city’s polluted riverbeds.
“We can clean kilometer after kilometer of streams. But it’s a lack of culture, of hygiene,” said Castrillo, vice president of the Cocibolca basin commission.
Cracking down on polluters, particularly when they provide jobs in a poor economy, isn’t an easy task.
In the central department of Chontales, for instance, less than half of the 16 dairy farms near the western shore of Lake Cocibolca have proper treatment programs.
According to a study by the NationalAutonomousUniversity, UNAN, only two of those dairy farms have their own septic tanks. The companies could be fined or closed under Nicaraguan law, the study said.
“We’re opening an administrative process against them,” said Rigoberto López, MARENA’s coordinator for the Cocibolca and San JuanRiver basin. “But you can’t just close them. They create jobs.”
In Nicaragua, having laws is one thing, but enforcing them is another. “Very few of the laws that the country passes have any effect on what they’re intended to protect,” said Ave Maria College biologist Eric van den Berghe.
The Environment Ministry “has no technical or administrative capacity” to enforce the laws, said former Minister Incer. “There’s no sponsors, no state support. Conservation in Nicaragua is very difficult,” he added.
Back in Granada, Barquero patrols Granada’s polluted ravines and shakes his head at a riverbed converted into a sludge pit of trash and waste.
Like MARENA, his three-man municipal environmental department doesn’t have the resources to enforce laws.
“This is how we take care of our great lake,” he said.