“The Tequendama Falls has the dubious honour of being the largest wastewater falls in the world…Liquid wastes from the city are flushed untreated into the Bogotá River at the lower edge of the sabana, a few kilometres upstream of the Tequendama Falls. Downstream from Bogotá, the river is filled with sewage…” (The International Development Research Center, Canada, http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-29703-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html)
Bogota River Tour with Fundacion Rio Urbano
Saturday I spent 12 hours touring various parts of the Bogota River with the director of the Fundacion Rio Urbano, who used to be the head of Colombia’s equivalent of the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Thanks to a Colombian woman I met on a hike I was invited along on this excursion (check out her blog about traveling in Colombia – http://colombia-travel-marcela.blogspot.com).
Looking at the falls with the head of Fundacion Rio Urbano
Investigation crew with Tshirts and hats courtesy of the foundation
German, the director of Fundacion Rio Urbano, picked us up at 8am with tshirts and hats from the Foundation to wear, so I felt like we were this little investigation team!
Development along the river
We stopped off at various points along the river, which has been channelized in most areas throughout Bogota, before coming to the wastewater treatment plant (one more badly-needed plant is currently in construction), located just above the Muna reservoir.
According to German, the largest problem for the Bogota river is what is called pirate developers and/or pirate hookups. Bogota has grown rapidly and there are new residential developments all over the city. Many of the water hookups are done carelessly or with complete disregard for environmental compliance in order to save money. So, construction crews or developers will inadvertently or purposely hook up wastewater pipes from developments to stormwater drainage pipes which flow directly into the river.
Stormwater drainage pipe through which untreated sewage often flows into the river
You can smell this raw sewage along most points of the river. The smell was so strong farther downstream near the Muna reservoir and treatment plant that we didn’t even dare get out of the car!
Muna reservoir - "the world's largest open sewer"
Trash on the shore of the Muna reservoir
More trash along shore
Here’s a good description of the Muna reservoir and its history:
“Muna, once a pristine reservoir that attracted tourists for water sports and recreation, is now a source not only of mosquitoes, but also of foul odors, rats and gastrointestinal, respiratory, dermatological and other disorders, residents said.
The problems stemmed from a decision decades ago that allowed the Empresa de Energia de Bogota, a city-owned electricity company, to reroute the Bogota River away from its natural course and into Muna to supply water for two hydroelectric generating plants.
Now, the Bogota River is a stew of industrial waste, heavy metals and raw sewage due to industrial dumping and a dearth of waste treatment plants in Bogota and other towns that use the river to dispose of their sewage. As a result, Muna has become what Sibate councilman Alfonso Gonzalez calls “the world’s largest open sewer.” (Catholic News Service, 2005, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=12324)
Bogota river just above Tequendama falls
Next stop was Tequendama Falls. The river here might look like any nice mountain stream, but it is still very polluted. The white foam you see in the picture below was a meter high a few weeks ago at the same spot.
Unfortunately the river still smelled even here among the lush mountains.
The area around Tequendama Falls is still very beautiful and before the pollution was a very popular tourist spot for Bogotanos wanting a quick escape from the city. The old hotel pictured below had a gorgeous view of the falls. Several people have tried to restore it but have not succeeded. A foundation is now turning it into a historical museum.
Old hotel with a view of the Falls
So far the trip had been quite depressing and overwhelming. Where does one even begin to help clean up the Bogota river when development goes unchecked, urban residents see it not as a river but as a garbage dump, and there is a severe lack of treatment facilities.
Tanneries and pollution near the headwaters
Our next stop was as close to the headwaters as we got. The river is still significantly polluted even this close to its source due to the hundred-some leather tanneries in the town that, until recently, dumped all of their chemical-laden water straight into the river. This is still a practice I’m sure, but some owners (like the ones we met) are putting in their own water treatment plants.
Bogota River in tannery town
Even though there is a law prohibiting construction within 30 meters of the river there are many houses build right along the banks or this one which just built a driveway over the river!
Unfortunately, the national development agency years ago suggested to the owners of tanneries that they begin to use chemicals to treat the leather instead of more ecologically friendly methods they had learned from their parents and grandparents. Then, years later, the environmental agency came and closed down their shops for violating environmental regulations. Unfortunately, the government did nothing to help them improve their operations. But a family we visited took out a loan and put in their own treatment system and, after two years of being closed, were allowed to open again.
The Leather Treatment Process
Tanks where the hair is removed from the animal skin
Animal hair that will be composted and used later as fertilizer
The compost pile
Experimenting with new composting techniques pumping oxygen into the barrels
the new water treatment system
Wow! The final product! This whole piece was just $25!
Scenes from the tannery town of Villapinzon
Enjoying coffee and almohabanas after a long day
Plaza in the town
Almost all the men I saw were wearing ruanas
Typical ruana that all the men - young and old - in this town were wearing