Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tap water doesn't mean drinking water: Interview with the Movement for Water Quality

(This article was originally written for Th!nk about it: Developing world)
Venezuelan government states that 92% of the population has access to drinking water. Meanwhile, the consequences of a long drought strike Venezuela and the inhabitants of Valencia are affected by polluted water coming from their taps.

The city of Valencia, in VenezuelaTomorrow is the World Day of Earth. Meanwhile, Venezuelan government states that we're achieved the MDG concerning potable water, and valencians doesn't seem to agree.
We interviewed the physicist Edison Durán, Coordinator of the Movement for Water Quality, and this is what he said.

What exactly is the problem of water in Valencia?

Currently, there are several important clues to the serious deterioration of the quality of drinking water consumed in the Gran Valencia, ranging from increasingly frequent complaint of residents from all geographical points of the city, on the putrid smell of the water that comes to their homes, the abundance of sediment, high turbidity or at the other end, receiving an excessive content of chlorine in water. Apart from anecdotal reporting, there is the complaint of many researchers and specialists on the possible contamination of water by high concentrations of trihalomethanes (cancer-causing chemicals) and even the possible presence of toxic metals.
In summary, water quality has deteriorated particularly in the last 5 years as a result of Decree No. 3498 which ordered the diversion from the main river of the city, the Río Cabriales, from its mouth to Lake Valencia (highly contaminated) at Pao Cachinche Reservoir, which is the reservoir of "drinking water" that supplies the city. The problem arises because the Cabriales, wich crosses the city from end to end, is a highly polluted river, and the transfer of 5,000 liters per second of water that pour into the reservoir has increased the degree of contamination, making treatment plants lose their efficiency since they’re being forced to treat waste water, having been designed primarily to treat surface water. Additionally, several thousand additional gallons are pumped from Lake Valencia until Pao Cachinche reservoir, thus increasing the pollution load received by the reservoir.

Is there any real evidence on water pollution?

Yes. Already in 2004, a year before the start of the transfer of the Cabriales River and the pumping of water from Lake Valencia, a study conducted by researchers at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (Gonzalez, E., Ortaz, M. Peñaherrera, C . and Matos, M.) said that the reservoir is hypertrophic, which means that the body of water has a high amount of organic compounds and pollutants (of which 75% are cyanobacteria), which generate an uncontrolled growth of bacterial fauna and algae in the reservoir, which reduce significantly the amount of oxygen present in him and thus decreasing the water quality in the reservoir. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the pollutant load that reservoir has received over the past 5 years has greatly increased the degree of contamination.
To address these high levels of organic matter, the company Hidrológica del Centro (HIDROCENTRO), has been in the need to use large amounts of chlorine to purify such water, finishing with excess of organic matter but consequently resulting in increased concentration of trihalomethanes. These chemicals are always formed naturally in the reaction of chlorine with organic matter present in water, and are present in all potable water systems. The problem arises when these exceed the permitted safety levels, as is shown by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that high concentrations of trihalomethanes are carcinogenic.
A 2003 study, by researchers at the Center for Toxicological Research of the University of Carabobo (Sarmiento, A., Rojas, M., Median, E., Olivet, C., and Casanova, J.), found high concentrations of Trihalomethanes in the water network of  San Diego, and concluded that this represented a risk of harm to the health of the population. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the maximum allowable must be 50 micrograms per liter, and UC researchers found for 2003 average values of 94.23 micrograms per liter. Again, this makes us think that current levels (which haven’t been disclosed by Hidrocentro’s officials) must be in higher values because of the higher organic components in the reservoir and the consequent increase in the use of chlorine to purify water.

What are the possible consequences of this contamination for the population? How many people reach this impact?

There are short, medium and long term consequences. The short-term consequences of excess chlorine we live each week. This excess of chlorine causes irritation of mucous membranes, burning eyes, itching and even skin irritation in some people. If contact with chlorine occurs during a hot shower, the chlorine fumes can cause a feeling of suffocation and cause respiratory problems. Some people have described it as if someone had thrown a tear gas bomb in the middle of your bathroom.
In the medium term, if it is found the presence of toxic metals (as some researchers have suggested), there is a serious danger of metal poisoning, especially in children, who are the most vulnerable population There are documented cases of valencian children diagnosed as autistic when they actually were intoxicated by aluminum. One worrying aspect is the empirical fact that 5 years ago, one child per month was diagnosed with autism in Valencia, and today that figure has risen to 8 cases per month. No one can say that there is a link between water pollution in the city and cases of poisoning or false diagnoses of autism, but it is a fact in our view too serious to pass unnoticed and not be analysed in more depth.
In the long term, the greatest risk is posed by trihalomethanes, which are known to cause bladder cancer, liver, kidney, and it is even being considered its impact on lung cancer. While it is true that the time required for these exposures to produce a cancer as described above covers a period of 30 years, it is necessary to act preventively now and not wait passively for a micro long-term collective poisoning.

What actions have had the Venezuelan media on this issue? Do you think it that has been properly reviewed and widespread?

Personally, I found out about the problem while being outside of my country while pursuing doctoral studies, thanks to the review of complaints by Ing. Jacquelin Rodríguez, Biologist Yhilda Paredes and Ing. Manuel Pérez, which were reflected in major newspapers of Valencia. There I became aware of the serious potential problem that it represented and I undertook to study the situation in depth when I were back. When I returned to Valencia and get to contact these and other researchers and engineers (some of them working within the Hidrocentro) I could understand to a greater extent the potential seriousness of the matter, and so I decided to move from concern to action and to form a movement with citizens, neighborhood organizations and environmentalists to put pressure to authorities to act now. Since then, the regional media, print and television have given us their support to spread the problem, but in the coming months is when we'll need their help to make the problem not be forgotten.

What do you do in the Movement for Water Quality? What are your goals?

In the movement for water quality, which is about 6 weeks of created by now, we have been doing outreach work and awareness on the issue, giving talks, interviews and maintaining a web space ( ) and especially raising awareness of the need to scientifically investigate the current state of pollution of drinking water in Valencia. So we've drafted a petition, based on the Venezuelan legal system in force, demanding Hidrocentro three fundamental points:
1)    Make public the studies that they are legally required to perform and make the public domain to ensure water quality, according to the established in the "Health Standards for Drinking Water Quality".
2)    Conduct these studies with the frequency and extent required by law for a city the size of Valencia.
3)    Enable external institutions and independent from Hidrocentro, to make studies on the system on water quality, to allow accepting or not the validity of such studies.

In support of this request have been collecting signatures in large sections of the city, getting to learn about the experiences people have had concerning the poor quality of the water that reaches their homes and the consequences it have had over their health. We firmly believe that this is the first step that should be done: understand the current reality of the pollution problem, and that on this, on a scientific basis, we may make future actions.

So far, have you raised this problem to any official body? Any official body has made statements in relation to the water problem in Valencia?

This April 21, we’ll be entering the letter petition, along with more than 1000 signatures in support, to the Presidency of Hidrocentro, hoping we can get a positive response to our demands as a first step to provide a solution to the problem.

In addition, on April 10th we’ll be consigning another letter to the authorities of the University of Carabobo, asking them to assume their leadership role as the largest scientific institution in the region, the creation of a multidisciplinary team of doctors, engineers, biologists and chemists, to dedicate themselves to make a comprehensive study of the problem and to not remain indifferent to reports that have been carried out. So far we have not received a reply on the matter.

What do you think are possible solutions to the problem of water in Valencia, in the short or medium term?

There are immediate actions that regardless of the actual contamination level should be performed. The first and perhaps most important is the repeal of Decree 3498 and stop the flow of contaminated water from the Rio Cabriales to the Reservoir of Pao Cachinche.
Then, in the medium term there are a number of other actions that depend on the outcome of the initial investigation, and which are designed to attack other multiple sources of pollution of the reservoir, such as the spout "La Yuca" (contaminated by pig farms), the regular use of agrochemicals used in areas surrounding the basin, maintenance of distribution mains, investment in rehabilitating the Treatment Plants "Alejo Zuloaga" and "La Mariposa"  (the latter in considerable state of deterioration and affected daily by blackouts) among others.

According to the Government of Venezuela, the country has achieved six of the eight United Nations Millennium Goals of the UN, including that relating to environmental sustainability, saying "the country has made significant progress during recent years, from than eighty percent of the population with access to drinking water in the year 1998, to 92% of all Venezuelans who have drinking water. " (Source: "Venezuela meet the Millennium Development Goals, Ministry of Communication and Information). Understanding drinking water as the one that can be consumed by humans and animals without risk to health, where do you think Venezuela is positioned in meeting this goal?

It’s really hard, not only as scientists but as citizens, to blindly believe in the figures or estimates of government, when the Viceminister of Water dares to declare (as he did in the past World Water Day) that the water that reaches the Venezuelan houses is so pure that there is no need to even boil it and can be drunk directly from the jet. It is certainly possible, that access to piped water has increased, but this does not necessarily imply that access to drinking water has done so too.

What actions can the average citizen take in order to help with the work of the Movement for Water Quality?

Join this initiative and cooperate within their means. We need to create a multidisciplinary movement which includes not only engineers and scientists, but also includes doctors, lawyers, teachers, so that from the perspective of their profession can help in this case. In the next weeks we will be organizing a course to train disseminators who can multiply the message in their communities and can both raise awareness of the problem and on the actions that can be done at home to reduce the chances of being affected in our health. It's possible that we don't receive the appropriate response from Hidrocentro, and we'll see the need to lift up the complaint and the request to the Environmental Commission of the National Assembly, and for that, it will be crucial the support that by their signatures, their presence or their consciousness, can give us the population. In our blog (, all persons interested in collaborating, may fill out a form and register with our network of volunteers, and so  define how each one can collaborate. From the Movement for the Water Quality we can but thank you for your help and support to disclose this situation.

The image is property of user J-612, in Flickr, and it is under a Creative Commons license.

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