Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

CHILE: Quake a Chance for Sustainable Rebuilding

Daniela Estrada* - Tierramérica

SANTIAGO, Mar 31 2010 (IPS) - Although there is not yet an official tally of the environmental consequences of Chile’s Feb. 27 earthquake and tsunami, environmental groups and experts are calling for quick and sustainable responses to the problems.

A "dry toilet" created by the eco-tech company EMUH in collaboration with the Ceibo Centre. Credit: Courtesy of the Ceibo Centre

A "dry toilet" created by the eco-tech company EMUH in collaboration with the Ceibo Centre. Credit: Courtesy of the Ceibo Centre

Among the challenges reported are mountains of rubble and garbage, air pollution from demolition work, fish factories and other industrial sites destroyed, sewage systems ruined, biodiversity lost and soils degraded by the major quake.

“We believe there is an opportunity within this misfortune to rebuild in a different way – one that is more environmentally friendly, more sustainable, with more respect and consideration for issues like climate change,” environmentalist Flavia Liberona, executive director of the non-governmental Terram Foundation, told Tierramérica.

The right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera, sworn in Mar. 11, has yet to provide an overall environmental impact evaluation of the magnitude 8.8 quake, which shook up central and southern Chile and triggered a tsunami that swept through coastal villages in the regions El Maule and Bío-Bío.

The human toll of the catastrophe, according to authorities, was 342 people dead and 95 disappeared, as well as 800,000 homeless. The number of housing units destroyed or with major structural damage is at least 260,000.

The public and private costs reach 30 billion dollars, including damages to infrastructure, loss of gross domestic product, waste removal and provision of emergency food supplies.

But Liberona pointed out: “We don’t know what happened to the underground household waste pipelines, to the paper factories’ chemical storage pools, to the toxic mining by-products, to the sanitary landfills – whether or not they are leaking into the underground water sources.”

Experts have called on the recently created Ministry of Environment to play a dominant role in the “sustainable and inclusive reconstruction” of Chile, with carefully planned cities and low-carbon economic activities as a way to mitigate climate change.

Non-governmental organisations and research institutions, in coordination with officials or on their own, have begun various efforts to confront the quake emergency with an ecological spin.

Architect and planning expert Consuelo Bravo is working on a broad plan for handling the rubble in parts of the region of El Maule, 200 kilometres south of Santiago.

The plan calls for knowing which waste can be reused and which should be discarded, and for local governments to consider alternatives for recovery and transformation of waste into useful material.

Bravo, director of the master’s programme in landscape and environmental architecture at the private Catholic University, also heads a project of the Santiago city government to build a memorial park from the quake’s rubble.

Some of the rubble can be used “as stabilisers for roads, as fill for new infrastructure and for recreational areas,” she told Tierramérica.

The emergency has revealed the low percentage of participation in recycling in Chile. In the capital it is less than 14 percent of household solid waste per year, with projections to boost it to 25 percent in 2020.

The buildings that suffered most damage from the quake were those built using adobe and without quake-resistant precautions.

Now experts and officials are debating which buildings constructed with that material can be saved, taking into consideration one of adobe’s main benefits: less demand for energy, which makes it a low-carbon solution.

The Ceibo Cultural, Social and Environmental Centre, which heads the creation of the country’s first “eco-neighbourhood” in the Santiago district known as Maipú, has knocked on many doors to promote “dry bathrooms” in the disaster zones.

These bathrooms include a toilet, an evacuation tube and a plastic tank with California redworms (Eisenia foetida), which transform the waste into soil fertiliser that is not a threat to human health. After using the toilet, the individual should add sawdust, toilet paper or other materials to accelerate the transformation process.

The Ceibo Centre has proposed this alternative to various officials and is waiting for responses, centre president Luis Márquez told Tierramérica.

Given the weakness of the electrical network following the quake, many are also calling for greater efforts to incorporate unconventional renewable energy sources into the system, including wind and solar, in order to advance decentralisation and increase energy autonomy.

Márquez proposes photovoltaic panels or wind turbines for neighbourhood councils and public areas. In this spirit of energy autonomy, telephone companies donated 1,900 cellular phones that can be recharged using solar power to the quake-affected zones.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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