In cities across Latin America, tap water is not safe to consume without treating for bacteria and water-born parasites (including T. gondii, C. cayetanensis, Giardia and Cryptosporidium). Cuenca is an exception. Before drinking the tap water in Cuenca you don’t need to disinfect it, and many people drink it directly without further filtration. It is an environmental luxury in a continent where the majority of people don’t have safe drinking water. The water comes from rain-fed water sources in protected watersheds high in the steep, surrounding Andes mountains, that are fairly inaccessible to the general population. (A watershed of a stream is the area, demarcated by high points in the surrounding land, from where all the rain during a rainfall event drains into it.) Our recent hike took us on an exploration of a protected watershed area outside Cuenca, administered by ETAPA, Ecuador’s agency responsible for infrastructure.
Our excursion started with a bus ride heading west out of the city, along Ordoñez Lasso. The landmark at our turnoff was a little chapel, whose loudspeaker system had been rewired by construction workers who were remodeling and painting. This made it so the holy catholic chapel was broadcasting their “at work” playlist of clubby, hoppin’-poppin’ reggaton (which nobody around batted an eyelid at, but sounded ridiculously incongruous to us!)
We jammed ourselves into Mixtos (for-hire pick-up trucks that ply the mountain roads around Cuenca) to cover some of the distance uphill. We drove through what was once a poor, rural outskirt mostly inhabited by small-scale agricultural producers, but is now gentrifying into a suburb of Cuenca. San Miguel de Putushi has recently become incorporated into the larger Cuenca municipality and it’s now common to see a mix of residents including farmers driving their cows, horse-riding cow-herds, and suburban families. The mixture of homes include ramshackle, low-cost construction as well as gated and fenced, well-built, and stylish haciendas owned by wealthy Cuencanos who seek the fresher country air. The artesenal brewery Nordica have their offices here.
As the road climbs up into the mountains, houses are spaced farther out, and soon you see only fields scratched out in patches on any level surface, and usually planted with potatoes. Looking out across the steep valleys, there were many opportunities to joke about the cows we saw grazing on the impossibly steep inclines of the mountainsides. Surely one of the legs had to be shorter than the other to maintain their stance as they munched their way through the pitched mountain pastures.
The deeply-gullied and broke-up road eventually frays into dirt. The Mixto driver who expertly navigated this excuse for a road noted that he didn’t expect it to be improved any time soon. Probably a good thing. The protected watershed area wants to keep most people out, by virtue of its difficult access and very steep trail, most people do stay away. ETAPA have posted signage saying the area is protected for water supply, and a gate (although open) serves as a kind of sign that people are meant to stay out.
Yet, as with many aspects of Ecuador, the guidelines and rules only exist to be broken.
As we found out on the trail, some local residents do go up there, usually on horses or motorbikes, possibly to gather herbs or other types of plants and materials. Several passed us on foot.
After the gate, we hiked on foot trails, and then up into some bush. The trees were rich with bromeliads, plants that live off trees high in the air. Presently we found beautiful protected streams rushing through the rocks ,and falling into quiet water holes.
I reflected on what a luxury it was to actually see clean water. The entire group hung out by the banks, calmed and mesmerized in the presence of the purity and vibrance of a living stream.
It was time to savor the marvels and gifts of nature, relatively unscathed by human hands high up here in the mountains. All along the steep path up, we saw patches or creepers with gorgeous wildflowers.
The Clean Water Act (United States), Environmental Awareness, and Protection
Given the effort it took to reach a body of living, clean water here in Cuenca, I reflected on my regular access to many such beautiful and clean streams all across the United States, both in the mountains far from people and in relatively urbanized areas. In theory at least, streams are protected by the Clean Water Act of 1972. This law safeguards waterbodies against degradation and requires that waterbodies must reduce pollutants to standards which are safe for fish and safe for humans (“fishable” and “swimmable”).
While the United States is far from perfect and has degraded many of its waterbodies during the course of its industrial expansion, the 1970s-era Clean Water Act paved the way for restoring many rivers and waterbodies back to health. Environmental consciousness is widespread and deep across the United States. Both urban citizens who benefit economically from clean and attractive river-fronts, and rural citizens who fish and boat recreationally and as a source of income, understand that clean water is a precious resource that requires protection. Remarkably, and thanks to the general conformance to legal standards that care for the environment in the United States, there are fairly healthy populations of fish, and recreational opportunities with plenty of direct contact including kayaking, swimming, and floating even in major urban centers such as the Potomac River that flows through the capital city of Washington D.C.
Notwithstanding the relentless onslaught of commercial interests (e.g. oil pipelines) and their well-paid political representatives in the U.S. government who want to loosen the Clean Water Act’s requirements to make it easier and cheaper for manufacturing and other industries to pollute, the citizenry in the United States, for the most part, demand clean water in their streams and rivers. They are also aware of their own role in keeping surface water clean, for human benefit, for economic wealth, and for ecosystem health.
The Rivers That Flow Through Cuenca
By the time the mountain streams flow downstream and mix with other streams to become the larger rivers that flow through Cuenca, they are ecologically dead. They rivers of Cuenca don’t support a healthy mix of aquatic life; only the most pollution-tolerant insects can survive. They are the outlet for untreated street runoff laden with trash and dog waste (commonly left lying in the streets).
What I’ve found here is that the majority of Cuencanos (residents of Cuenca) seem fairly nonchalant about the importance of rivers as sources of life, not just for them, but for the rest of the ecosystem to include vital native plants and animals, from insects to fish and birds. The education system here (as I understand from teachers with whom I have spoken) does not stress environmental studies and awareness to the extent it is done in Europe and the United States. People don’t identify their rivers as a signal and an embodiment of nature. Yet Cuencanos aren’t immune to the obvious signs of the degradation of their rivers. Cuencanos lament the notable changes in the rivers’ water level over recent decades; they run lower than ever in living memory. They note that climate change manifests as changing rainfall regimes. Indeed through changing rainfall levels and pollution, available fresh water continues to be depleted. Many Cuencanos like to fish recreationally, but to do so requires leaving the city for trout-stocked areas and protected parks.
For the large majority of Cuenca’s urban population, the rivers are largely seen as background decoration to their city, and are not connected to their imaginations as corridors of “protected nature”. The rivers are more of a water access point usually for waste or other uses. People do laundry directly in the river and on the river banks, just downstream from big outflows of street runoff. I’ve seen all manner of men use the river as a toilet, on a frequent basis: taxi drivers pull up to the river and find a tree to pee into the river. I’ve seen janitors take their buckets and mops down to the river to wash off their waste. Trash such as plastic fast food containers is abundant along the river sides. Dog waste is frequently seen on the river banks.
Water Supply Systems and Economics (It’s Free to Pollute, but Costly to Supply Clean Water)
The water supply systems of most Latin American cities are contaminated by various sources of human pollution. If intakes to the supply systems are from surface water (e.g. lakes, reservoirs, and rivers) they are often subject to often illicit piped discharges from industry, small-scale production or processing, and agriculture. They are also subject to urban runoff that contains contaminants such as garden chemicals, trash, organic waste, fecal coliform from pets and humans, and leaked petroleum products that are lying on our streets. Once polluted, the water becomes prohibitively expensive to treat to a safe standard for human consumption, before it is directed through delivery lines into people’s homes.
Thus, the prevailing norm that it’s free to pollute and discharge waste into nature is the basis of the entire production system that undermines both environmental and human health.
Absurdly, after allowing free pollution by all manner of industrial production and human activities, then, Latin American economies are stuck with cost limitations of providing clean and safe water. The costs are transferred onto consumers. It’s up to them to bear the costs of health related problems resulting from bad water, or to bear the costs of purchasing clean water (in plastic bottles).
The only guarantee of clean water from surface water intakes is to strictly regulate and restrict human access to entire watersheds that surround a body of water.
Conclusions for Cuenca
The municipality of Cuenca and ETAPA have at least, established a way to protect their water. However, as we found out, the enforcement of rules is sorely lacking. And that still leaves the water system vulnerable to many sources of contamination.