COLOMBIA: 'No' to Storm Sewer Runoff, Says Fishing Village

The residents of a picturesque fishing village in northern Colombia are up in arms against a storm drain system being built by a majority Spanish-owned water and sewage company that will serve shantytowns in the nearby port city of Santa Marta, discharging the runoff into the cove where their village is nestled.

The Metroagua water company in Santa Marta, in which the Spanish firms Técnicas Valencianas del Agua and Canal Isabel II of Madrid hold a majority stake, is building a storm sewer to help prevent flooding in slums on the northeastern outskirts of the city.. But since the areas in question lack plumbing and sanitation services, the drain will carry much more than rain water into the Taganga Bay on the Caribbean Sea.

Santa Marta, the capital of the northern province of Magdalena, lacks a proper storm sewer system, and during the rainy season, flooding causes health emergencies in slum neighbourhoods due to the lack of garbage collection and sanitation services.

In the shantytowns, where precarious dwellings cling haphazardly to the hills, with no sewage services and often without even basic latrines, local residents buy drinking water for four cents of a dollar per gallon from mule-drawn carts.

The new storm drainage system will carry runoff from 31 slum neighbourhoods, benefiting 8,508 dwellings, according to Metroagua, the mixed capital company in charge of providing piped water and sewage services to Santa Marta, a city of 1.7 million.

The state-run Corporación Autónoma Regional del Magdalena (CORPAMAG), which is responsible for protection of the environment, approved the feasibility of the project, and said it would improve the quality of life of local residents, solve the flooding problems, and create jobs during the construction phase.

The new storm sewer system involves the construction of a five-km canal that will carry storm water runoff northwards to the Taganga bay, after running through a 258-metre tunnel through the mountains. The project will cost around 1.86 billion dollars, provided by the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development.

The outlet of the underground storm sewer pipe, which began to be built in May, will discharge into one end of the beautiful 1.5-km Taganga bay, a 10-minute drive from Santa Marta.

The local community complains that the untreated storm water runoff will hurt the health of the 4,600 people living along the bay, as well as their main livelihoods -- fishing and tourism. They are also worried about damages to the marine fauna and flora, coral reefs, seabed, and aquatic landscape in an area where recreational snorkeling and scuba diving are an important source of income.

Although the drainage system is being built for storm water runoff, the local residents point out that it will also carry organic waste, due to the lack of sewage and garbage collection services in several Santa Marta slums. "If they don't have water to drink, they certainly don't have water for cleaning up," a Taganga resident who asked not to be identified told IPS.

Furthermore, surface storm drains forming part of the system run parallel to roads, which are also under construction, to be used by trucks hauling coal or chemicals.

Although Metroagua plans to install grates to keep debris from running into the bay, Taganga residents are worried that the drainage system will also receive coal and chemical waste products, and that the truck repair shops that will be built along the road will dump residues like automotive oil, fuel and paint into the system, which would thus carry heavy metals and other toxic and carcinogenic products directly into the bay.

Also opposed to the storm drain system are the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, who say Taganga bay falls within the "black line", an imaginary limit recognised by the Colombian state since 1973, which demarcates the ancestral territories and sacred sites vital to the cultural survival of the indigenous groups living in that remote area.

Taganga bay contains two sacred sites, Java Julekun and Java Nekun, where indigenous people from time immemorial have collected shells. Especially threatened is Java Nekun, located at the northwestern tip of the bay, right at the tunnel's point of discharge.

Although the project was proposed in the government's schedule of public hearings in 2003, Taganga residents deny that they were consulted or informed prior to the start of construction.

When the community took legal action to demand that they be allowed to see copies of the project, the court ordered Metroagua to turn over two documents. But when community representatives went to get the documents, they found that the company was charging 800 dollars for each copy.

Santa Marta Mayor José Francisco Zúñiga admitted on Jul. 7 that "it was a mistake" not to consult the Taganga residents about the project. Metroagua made the same admission on Jun. 6, in the first meeting organised by the community.

Not until Jun. 13 did Metroagua present the project to the Institute of Marine and Coastal Research (INVEMAR). However, the documents presented were "incomplete" and did not include "detailed information," according to the Institute.

While CORPAMAG maintains that no environmental impact study was needed for the works to go ahead, INVEMAR, which answers to the Environment Ministry, wrote that in order to assess "the possible effects on the area of the discharge of water by the storm drainàenvironmental impact studies must be reviewed."

INVEMAR director Francisco Arias said that what was needed was "a detailed inventory of the environmental systems adjacent to the point of discharge, in order to determine their current conditions and degree of vulnerability to the impact of runoff from the storm sewer."

INVEMAR also warned that the design of the storm drain should take into account a future increase in sediment concentration, which would require studies of the sediment that will be discharged by the sewer as well as measures that would be taken to deal with it.

The Institute also recommended an oceanographic study of wind, currents, tides and ocean depths "to determine the distribution of runoff and sediment that the storm drain will discharge into the area."

A member of the Committee for the Defence of a Healthy Environment for Taganga, which was set up by community organisations four months ago, told IPS that "neither the city government nor Metroagua have demonstrated that this (dumping the runoff into the bay) is the best alternative."

The source also said the community had not had access to the documents outlining the other options that were considered.

The Committee argues that the storm water runoff should run through pipes and sewers parallel to the railroad track and into the ocean next to the docks in Santa Marta, after undergoing treatment to prevent the accumulation of sediment in the port. A petition sent to the mayor on Jun. 20, signed by 1,003 local residents of Taganga, argued that this would be "a much more viable and economical alternative."

The letter to the mayor also attributes the 2003 murder of Taganga town councillor Rafael Pinto, 50, to his outspoken opposition to the construction of a sewage and water treatment system in the fishing village, which was to discharge into the bay.

The project was suspended after Pinto filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office, which investigates misconduct by public officials and public bodies.

The storm sewer will force small fisherfolk in Taganga to cancel their plans for a lobster farming venture in the bay, whose warm, calm waters provide a natural breeding-ground.

The Sila Kangama Foundation states in a study financed by the environmental support fund Ecofondo that Taganga stands out in the Caribbean as one of the favourite breeding grounds of lobsters, comparable only to Puerto Morelos in Mexico.

AMP Section Name:Health
  • 183 Environment

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