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

ENVIRONMENT-LATIN AMERICA: A Dangerous Splash in the Sea

Gustavo González - Tierramérica*

SANTIAGO, May 30 2003 (IPS) - From Acapulco to Viña del Mar, the most beautiful beaches of Latin America are turning into dangerous places for bathers, the result of increasing contamination from various sources, but mostly from sewage discharged into the sea.

This is a common phenomenon throughout the region, and often pits health authorities and ecologists against local officials and businesses, the latter seeking to preserve the lucrative tourist economy associated with beaches and coastal areas.

Acapulco, on Mexico’s southwestern Pacific coast, Colombia’s Cartagena, on the Caribbean, and Viña del Mar, on the Chilean Pacific coast, are feeling the effects of these debates.

So, too, the Brazilian beaches of Rio de Janeiro, on the Atlantic, where authorities decided two years ago to establish a swimming beach on the shores of an artificial lake.

The ‘Piscinao (big pool) de Ramos’, made famous in Brazil by the popular TV series ‘The Clone’, was created to give the 130,000 residents of the nearby ‘favelas’ (slums) an alternative to bathing in the polluted waters of Rio’s otherwise beautiful Guanabara Bay.

At Ramos and other beaches along the bay, measurements taken in 1998 to 2000 revealed concentrations of 4,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres of water, when the internationally accepted maximum is 1,000 per 100 ml.

Sewage is the biggest enemy of the beaches, but also taking their toll are oil spills, garbage brought in by tides and even natural phenomena, like die-offs of sea birds or fish.

In Viña del Mar, officials assure that the coastline is no longer contaminated, thanks to the construction in the 1990s of a system that carries sewage far out to sea, and to the water treatment plants along the Aconcagua and other nearby rivers that flow into the Atlantic.

Municipal waste is subject to treatment processes in Cartagena, Colombia, and in Mexico’s Acapulco, where mayor Alberto López Rosas, of the leftist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), countering the health authorities’ ban on two beaches, went for a swim at both.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says in a recent study that urban wastewater has been identified as one of the greatest threats to sustainable coastal development worldwide.

According to the UNEP, the economic value of goods and services provided by oceans is 23 trillion dollars a year, while the infectious diseases that the contaminated coastal waters cause among bathers and seafood consumers have an annual economic impact of some 10 billion dollars.

The problem takes on particular importance in Latin America and the Caribbean, where 60 percent of the population lives less than 100 km from the sea.

The rehabilitation of beaches thus emerges as a shared responsibility in defence of marine resources and human health, an endeavour that requires extensive investment, monitoring systems, and environmental education campaigns targeting local populations, say experts.

Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, chief advisor of the Mexican Environmental Secretariat, said in comments to Tierramérica that the key is to provide systematic information about coastal water quality to alert bathers about health risks.

But when the Secretariat imposed a ban on Tlacopanocha and Caletilla beaches in Acapulco during the recent Holy Week, the mayor actively rejected it, saying the measure was excessive and inappropriate. The mayor was backed by local Roman Catholic archbishop Felipe Aguirre Franco, who proposed pouring holy water into the Acapulco sea.

Acapulco took in 200,000 tourists during Holy Week, 8.6 percent more than in the same period in 2002. Five million people visit the resort city each year, says mayor López Rosas.

The Cartagena Centre for Ocean and Hydrology Research states in a report that the water in the city’s bay has "high levels of contamination, sedimentation and overall environmental deterioration," as a result of wastewater discharge with organic compounds and fuel, oil, and fertilizer.

But Cartagena mayor Carlos Díaz said in a conversation with Tierramérica that those problems are now a thing of the past, dating to when the city’s sewage system could not keep up with the waste created by newly constructed properties. He said the current state of Cartagena’s bay is "excellent".

In nearly all Latin American countries there are bodies that monitor the coastal environmental conditions, and beaches in particular. In Chile this is the task of the Joint Commission on the Coastal Border, made up of the militarised Carabinero police, the navy and the local municipal authorities.

In November 2002, of the 415 beaches tested along the Chilean coast, eight were closed to bathers because they had higher coliform levels than the permitted 1,000 per 100 ml of water.

But the people who use the beaches say the clean-up efforts are not very rigorous. Tourist Renato Moya complained: "Two years ago my right foot was infected with the staphylococcus bacteria in Viña del Mar. I had to take two months of medical leave."

The major beaches of Rio de Janeiro, like Copacabana, Ipanema and Barra de Tijuca, do not suffer high levels of contamination because they face the open sea, unlike those of Guanabara Bay, where mayor Anthony Garotinho inaugurated the ‘Piscinao de Ramos’ in December 2001.

Environmental activist and Rio resident Maria do Carmo Serra Lopes told Tierramérica that she shed tears of happiness when she saw the beautiful park built around the artificial lake in an area where she had played as a child.

The "big pool" is a public work that not only improved the quality of life of the impoverished local residents, it also has had a positive effect on the bay itself, where fisherfolk have seen the fish population swell as a result of the clean water that flows into the bay from the artificial lake.

* Originally published May 24 in Spanish 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 and the United Nations Environment Programme:

(Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent. Yadira Ferrer/Colombia, Pilar Franco/Mexico and Mario Osava/Brazil contributed to this report.)

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