Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 83 | Mayo 1988



Nicaragua Briefs

Envío team

Say Water, Say Life!
Redundancy may be in store for the most recent status symbol of Managua’s middle class—the concrete water tank on stilts. Work is planned to begin in mid-1989 on a new project to pipe water from Lake Nicaragua, the huge freshwater lake 50 kilometers to the south, to the capital. When completed in mid-1992, the $100 million project may make Managua’s water shortages, and the storage tanks of the upper middle class, things of the past. The project will be financed by the Soviet Union and built with the help of 120 Soviet technicians.

For this help, Nicaraguans have emited a parched sigh of gratitude. “Decir agua es decir vida”—to say water is to say life—is the frequently-heard campaign slogan of Nicaragua’s state-owned water utility (INAA) urging Managua residents to conserve water. With a population of over one million (up from some 500,000 in 1979), Managua is divided into three water zones. Each day one of the zones has its water cut off from early morning to mid or late evening. Each zone –in theory, although not always in practice—has only two cut-offs a week and everyone—also in theory—has water on Sundays.

More People than Water
Last year, INAA began warning people that the water cut-offs may be expanded to three days weekly if conservation efforts don’t improve. INAA is up against the domestic water tanks and wanton watering of lawns in many state institution as well as residential neighborhoods. Yet it’s not entirely that water usage is careless. The crux of the problem is that there is simply not enough to go around. Ironically, the situation has been exacerbated since 1979 when the revolution first brought running water to scores of poor Managua neigbor-hoods.

The city’s preoccupation with water doesn’t seem logical at first glance: Managua sits on the edge of a bresh-water lake the size of California’s Lake Tahoe, with a series of volcanic lagoons close by. But Lake Managua (also referred to by its indigenous name, Xolotlán) is dangerously contaminated and nearing environmental “death.” The lagoons, save one, are also poisoned—either by raw sewage or extremely high levels of sulfurs and salts. Thus nearly 60% of Managua’s water must come from one of the volcanic lagoons, Asososca. The rest is drawn from a series of wells constructed during recent years in an attempt to deal with the problem of Managua’s rapidly increasing population and demand for water.

Asososca’s level has been slipping perilously over the last 20 years. In 1968, it dropped below Lake Managua’s level for the first time. Since the laggon is very close to the lake, that shift meant that the subterranean water table (ground water flow) reversed directions. Thus another key concern is that the polluted waters of Lake Managua will contaminate Asososca and make it unfit to supply Managua with drinking water.

A study commissioned by INAA two years ago estimated that it would take 20 years for the lake to reach—and contaminate—the lagon. If that study is correct, the contaminated water will reach asososca this year.

Local Transnational Garbage Dump
Managua has been dumping raw sewage directly into Lake Managua since 1927. It is estimated that up to 145 million gallons of sewage will be entering the lake daily by the year 2000 if steps are not taken to begin treatment soon.

In addition to the problem of raw sewage, the lake is polluted by the chemical discharges from some 37 industries located along the lake’s southern basin.

One of those causing most concern to Nicaraguan ecologists is the privately-owned Penwalt Plant located between the lake and the Asososca lagoon. Penwalt makes chlorine and caustic soda, dumping the byproducts (which include mercury) directly into the lake. Another private plant, Hercasa, makes the pesticide toxaphene, used on the cotton, fields of Nicaragua’s northwest agricultural region, from the chlorine produced at Penwalt.

According to a study carried out by Nicaragua’s Institute for Environmental Affairs (IRENA) with Dutch assistance, the concentration of DDT in lake sediments is 400 times the level set as acceptable by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The mercury content is 2000 times the level indicated by the EPA for conserving acuatic life.

A French advisor to Nicaraguan limnologists, Francois Ramade, called the dumping of toxic products a “detestable practice of the transnational corporation.” He noted that many companies take advantage of the lack of strong environmental legislation in underdeveloped countries and continue these dangerous practices.

Ramade pointed out that although the technology exists to partially process toxic wastes, it is quite costly and many corporations refuse to install it in small underdeveloped countries such as Nicaragua.

A Crystal Xolotán?
Today, the largest research institute in all of Nicaragua has a team working on the problems and eventual clean-up, or “rescue” of Lake Managua. The Center for Research on Aquatic Resources (CIRA) has research and laboratory facilities at Nicaragua’s National Autonomous University (UNAN.) CIRA’s facilities are funded in large part by a Danish funding agency. CIRA researchers say millions of dollars would be needed to clean up the lake, and lack of financial resources has been a major stumbling block in getting any project underway.

Another problem, according to IRENA’s assistant director Xavier Lopez, is that many government officials still lack the political will to really move forward on what he described as an “essential” issue. He is urging the Ministry of the Presidency to take p the cause and prioritise the rescue of the lake for Managua’s future generations.

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