The Río Pirro flows for 7.3 kilometers through the province of Heredia, north of San José. It courses past houses and fields in San Rafael and San Pablo and weaves through the lush, green backyard of the National University (UNA) in downtown Heredia.
The river dumps into two micro-basins – Quebrada Seca to the west and El Bermúdez to the east. The Public Services Company of Heredia (ESPH) draws water from the Río Pirro, treats it, and sends it to the sinks and showers of the many homes around the provincial capital.
But the waterway is filthy. In some neighborhoods, the foul stench of solid trash and wastewater permeates car windows and is obvious to passengers in autos crossing the bridges that span the river.
Bubbles and suds effervesce in spots where twigs and rubbish dam up the stream. Gloves, paper, tin cans and plastic garbage bags line the river’s banks, some trapped in tree branches that extend out over the water.
“Look at all that trash,” said Patricia Miranda, a resident of Jardines II, a neighborhood behind the UNA where the river passes. “Do you smell that? That’s filth.”
Ramshackle metal and brick homes are stacked shabbily on top of one another, built on the edge of the steep bank the Río Pirro has carved out, butting up against the 90-degree slope that plummets some 10 to 20 feet down to the riverbed. On a recent visit, one family who lives along the river told The Tico Times that nine people live in a particular home that appeared suitable for four people, at most.
“This is part of the problem,” said Miranda, who leads the Development Association of Jardines Universitarias, which has launched a campaign to help educate residents about how to manage trash.
According to the Forestry Law, these houses should have been built some 40 to 50 meters back from the edge of the river. But some of the poor families in this area are squatters, who neglected to request necessary permits, and few of whom are familiar with zoning laws.
One member of the family of 9, who did not want to give a name, insisted that “no one told us we can’t build here. No one said you can’t live next to a river.”
The neighborhood seems overcrowded. Many families work from their homes. For example, members of a family of nine offer hair cuts and hemming services.
All of this, Miranda said, generates a large amount of trash. The HerediaMunicipality sends a truck once a week, but Miranda doesn’t think that schedule is enough. Rather than waiting for the garbage truck, families hurl their waste over a concrete retaining wall and into the river below.
She asked, “With all these people in this small space, do you think they want to wait seven days to get trash out of their home?”
In the meantime, Miranda and a team of students from the UNA spent a recent Friday afternoon talking with the families, distributing flyers and brochures that articulate, step-by-step, what to do with waste materials. The papers explain what to save, where to throw away certain items, and where not to pitch trash. The group hopes the families will read and save the material and follow the advice.
Upstream from Jardines Universitarias is Los Angeles de San Rafael. The Río Pirro in Los Angeles is not as dirty, and buildings are built better. But structures in this area are built as close to the river as some of the rickety houses in Miranda’s community. In one case, the river runs directly beneath a local grade school.
The problem in Los Angeles is that the stream was never declared a river. It doesn’t show up on the National Geographic Institute’s cartography and, for legal and planning purposes, it does not exist.
The lack of recognition of the river’s existence has allowed the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) to hand over environmental viability permits to anyone who wants to build on the water’s edge.
“This is dangerous, because even with adequate garbage collection, aguas negras leave the house and enter the river,” said Omar Miranda, dean of the UNA’s College of Land and Sea Sciences.
Residents wash their cars with soap that drains into the soil. Others dump mop buckets containing toxic cleaning chemicals into the same dirt that soaks up the carwash leftovers. All of this seeps into the neighboring Río Pirro and heads downstream, Omar Miranda said.
Some constructions also block the flow of the river, and this, during the dry season, can dry out the river below and strain local water supplies.
And, in the rainy season, too much rainfall can cause flooding in these houses, which are anchored in an unstable foundation of continually crumbling dirt, threatened by the gushing jets of white water.
Mariela Orozco built her house, legally, next to the Río Pirro 30 years ago, she said. Last year, one of her neighbors installed a large, concrete tube in the middle of the river and partially obstructed it’s the flow of the river. During a downpour in October 2009, the river backed up where the pipe was installed and flooded the first floor of Orozo’s home.
She filed formal complaints with the municipality and is awaiting a response.
“This is a complicated, long-term project that requires a lot of education,” Omar Miranda said as he addressed neighbors in Los Angeles de San Rafael and Jardines Universitarias, listening to their complaints and offering short-term solutions. Hundreds of UNA students accompanied Omar Miranda recently to clean the river and deliver educational flyers as part of the university’s campaign to cleanse the waterway.
“There are social, geological, environmental and economical factors to consider,” he said. But the only way to accomplish it is to start.”