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From Open Sewer to Green Parkway

 IPS 19 May 2019

(Originally published: 01/2010) For decades, the Miguelete, the main waterway running through the Uruguayan capital, was a virtual open sewer that the capital had turned its back on, along with its past as the site of the traditional Sunday promenade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  - Silvana Silveira


MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - For decades, the Miguelete, the main waterway running through the Uruguayan capital, was a virtual open sewer that the capital had turned its back on, along with its past as the site of the traditional Sunday promenade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But an open air dump seemed to be its fate until a comprehensive effort launched in the late 1990s set out to do the seemingly impossible: clean up the Miguelete, which is little more than a river that emerges to the north of Montevideo between the Pereira and Grande hills and runs across the city before flowing into the Rio de la Plata estuary.

Solid and domestic waste and effluents from the industries that cropped up along its banks in the mid-20th century were dumped into the small 22-km long river for at least 50 years, while the authorities and the local community turned a blind eye.

The first law on dumping was passed in 1968, but monitoring and controls were not put in place until 1990. In the meantime, the murky, smelly, rubbish-strewn waters covered up all kinds of environmental crimes.

Some 100 different factories dumping untreated waste into the river, along with a lack of urban sanitation and the abundant garbage thrown directly into the waterway by local residents - a practice that increased as slums began to sprout along its banks in the 1960s - turned the middle stretch of the Miguelete into an environmental and health risk.

The varied waste products led to alarming levels of pollution, and the river was eventually devoid of fish and water birds.

Although in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sedate greenway along the river was the spot for picnics, sports activities or the obligatory Sunday walk for the middle and upper classes, nearly 100 years later the narrow green areas with a wide variety of trees lining the small river no longer provided a pleasant walkway because of the stench.

"A course of water without oxygen cannot support biological activity, so nothing was living there," civil engineering surveyor Ricardo Martínez, director of the geomatics department in the Montevideo provincial government, told IPS.

First aid

The "special plan for the physical, ecological and environmental recovery of the Miguelete stream" was drawn up in 1998 and approved in 2002, to enable the city and its inhabitants to develop a new relationship with the waterway.

"The aim was to eliminate the sources of pollution, restore the water quality and create a new urban landscape by establishing park areas all along the river," said Martínez.

The idea was to transform the area along the banks from a series of slums and mosquito-infested overgrown greenery into a system of parks lining decent roads and equipped with bike paths and walkways.

"The objective was to integrate the Miguelete into the awareness and day-to-day activities of all Montevideanos by salvaging the urban social fabric along the river, encouraging real estate investment, and reverting the deterioration of the area," said Martínez.

The effort to create natural green areas along the river has been carried out gradually, in sections, under a broad umbrella that has brought together a range of different projects.

The first stage involved the creation of a sanitation network, which eliminated nearly all of the direct dumping of effluents into the river, at a cost of 220 million dollars between 1996 and 2006.

"Of the roughly 100 factories along the river, there are only 10 that still directly dump; the rest discharge their waste into the sanitation network," the director of the Montevideo city government sanitation division, Américo Rocco, told IPS.

At the same time, the city government's industrial effluents unit and its environmental quality laboratory were put in charge of two different programmes to monitor industrial pollution.

The industrial effluents unit identified the companies responsible for 90 percent of the industrial pollution in the city, and has carried out constant inspections and follow-up and monitoring efforts.

Targets were set for levels of lead, chromium and other heavy metals, oil, grease, sulphur and different kinds of solid wastes, and water samples from the Miguelete are periodically tested against those standards.

Vital signs

Chemical engineer Alicia Raffaele, director of the industrial effluents unit, told IPS that "in 1996, 24 companies were discharging waste into the river, and the organic pollution that they caused was equivalent to what would be produced by a population of 188,000 people," while in 1997, 111 kg of chromium and 28 kg of sulphur were dumped into the river per day.

Raffaele compared that with "November 2008, when (a handful of) companies produced pollution equivalent to that of a population of 21,400 people and discharged just 0.42 kg of chromium and 2.2 kg of sulphur per day."

The river responded accordingly, and the water quality index has improved steadily, the head of the environmental quality laboratory, Gabriella Feola, said to IPS.

"Of course, it's not like the water in a mountain stream or a glacier, it's not potable. But we're talking about a waterway that runs through a suburban and urban area, and obviously we expect things to continue improving," she said.

Feola noted that with respect to the water quality index, where drinking water is in the range of 85 to 100 (100 being pure mountain water), the water in the Miguelete went from a range of 16 to 30 out of 100 to between 46 and 60 in the last 10 years.

"You can't swim in it, but the water has clearly improved and life in the river is now possible," she said.

Another aspect of the clean-up effort has been the resettlement of some 400 families from one of the city's oldest slums, leaving the site open to the creation of a 400 metre long park. The move was carried out with the support of the government of the southern Spanish province of Andalusia. Similar relocations will occur elsewhere along the Miguelete.

Jogging paths

In the posh old neighbourhood of El Prado, a proposal by local residents led to the construction of an exercise circuit. Gabriela Debellis, a technician with the Montevideo city government's planning, management and design department, remarked to IPS that it was all made possible thanks to the initiative of a large group of joggers who pressed for repairs of the pitted walking trails.

Some of the old stateliness along the Miguelete has been revived in that area, where there are large old houses with ample gardens looking over the river. Next year, public lighting will be installed.

Park in place of slum

"Now you can come and drink mate (a traditional herbal infusion) here; it was impossible before," Marcelo Merladet told IPS while taking a walk with his two children, one of them on a tricycle, in the area that used to be the site of a slum.

It is now called the Juan Pablo Terra park, named after a local architect who was a co-founder of the left-wing Broad Front coalition, which has governed Montevideo since 1990 and reached the presidency for the first time in 2005.

However, while progress has been made, not everything is peachy: the two block-long park has continuously been vandalised, the grass is too high, and not a single lamppost along the bike path is intact.

Work has also been carried out around one of the city's worst slums, known as "40 Semanas", where there have been serious lead poisoning problems. The remnants of old factories were finally removed and the area cleaned up.

Martínez said the remains of a pier that may have been used by an old mill built by the Jesuits at the end of the 18th century were found on one bank of the river. The height of the construction gives an idea of how much the volume of water has shrunk.

The various projects and initiatives so far have involved 60 percent of the urban stretch of the Miguelete, said the civil engineering surveyor.

But Rocco said there are still around 20 slums along the waterway, and others along the Casavalle and Matilde Pacheco tributary streams. The problem is that one of the main income-earning activities of the residents is garbage sorting, and most of the waste that is of no use to them ends up in the river and streams.

Martínez, however, stressed that not only slum dwellers throw trash into the small river, but people driving top-end vehicles as well.

Cooperative clean-up

Until a few weeks ago, there were four cooperatives cleaning up the Miguelete on a daily basis, but their contracts have expired.

One was the Cuarenta y Pico cooperative, which works in slums hauling away the garbage that the waste pickers have discarded.

Carlos Paz, an engineer with the city government's sanitation maintenance and operation service, told IPS that Cuarenta y Pico was collecting between three and six cubic metres of floating rubbish a day, including "plastics, dead animals, metals, tires, bottles and plastic bags."

The president of the cooperative, Gladys Rivero, commented to IPS that there are people who applaud them as they work. "But others provoke us and throw garbage at us; there's one slum where we won't even go anymore," she added.

The city government has created two "Ecopuntos", with dumpsters for garbage pickers to discard what they cannot use, and a "Univar" recycling plant. The idea is to reduce garbage classification at people's homes in the slums, where 85 percent of waste pickers still do their sorting.

Herons…and otters?

Martínez said that at a meeting with local residents to assess how the plan was working, one participant said she was annoyed because neighbourhood kids threw stones at the herons.

"That was great news, because it shows there are herons again. The nesting of birds in an area that was once unsuitable to them shows that biology is doing its work, and that the ecobiological conditions are improving," he said.

Pedro Vasqué, an architect with the Centro Comunal Zonal 14 community centre, said "you can now see fish. This is painstaking work, the results will be seen in time." He added that some people swear they have even seen turtles, and even an otter.

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