Water Contamination Crisis

By Caroline Reid

After two weeks of being careful to only drinking filtered water, making sure our water bottles were full and brushing our teeth with the water from our daily water bottles, it was a nice change to come back to potable water from our taps. We often take it for granted the fact we have clean, fresh and cold water coming from the taps in our homes.

The water situation in Guatemala has become an increasingly important issue because the country is often facing water droughts. The droughts have reduced access to clean water, and poor quality has resulted in the spread of waterborne illnesses throughout the country. As a result of the lack of clean water, there is immense food shortages and increasing malnutrition among children in Guatemala. The cost of purchasing clean water or a water filtration system for a home is also often out of the question for those who are already just making ends meet financially.

Over 43 per cent of Guatemalan children under the age of five are fatally malnourished. In rural communities, the amount of malnourished Guatemalan children rises to around 80 per cent. It is the droughts in the more rural areas have the most substantial effect on the population, as there is very little access to clean water and there are more dry waterways increasing the risks and spread of diseases. When speaking with the CCDA (Campesino Committee of the Highland) leaders, they explained the problems of poverty, medical issues, and malnutrition that the Guatemalans suffer, this also has a more significant effect on indigenous people of Guatemala.

The CCDA has many projects to help resolve the issue facing the Guatemalans. They work together to share agriculture knowledge with the community so that each house can use the small land that they own to their full potential. This is to allow individuals to feed their families but also their community as they often share, trade and event market their fruits and vegetables. A group of women from the CCDA started their Tilapia fish farm. The women we met explained to us the tilapia business and their organic garden. It is rare for women in the community to work as they are often staying at home with the children; these women were very proud of their achievements and worked as a team to help their community.  The natural medicine plants were not only for the women at the tilapia fish farm but also to help their community. The CCDA also helps farmers guarantee organic products. 

The country faces a significant water crisis due to current climate change issues, the growth of industrial agriculture and also the mining happening in the country. There are droughts in some regions of the country and extensive flooding in the other areas. As an effect of the droughts, Guatemala’s disposal of solid and liquid waste in the small local bodies of water is having a more significant impact than ever. With limited quantities of clean water, the garbage that is deposited in rivers spreads diseases and infections in the population even more rampant. Access to clean water is a significant issue facing the country. Ultimately, water quality in Guatemala is a significant issue. Through collaboration of organizations and the Guatemalan government, the effect of the water quality and access in their country will hopefully be resolved. This will improve the quality of life for all of its residents of Guatemala.

In the plantation industry, owners of farms are illegally diverting rivers from their natural water paths to irrigate the growing sugar cane and African palm mono-crops. Small communities used to rely on these creeks and rivers for drinking water and crop irrigation. However, with the diversion, they have been dry or with minimal resources. The CCDA and other organizations are campaigning to free the rivers for public use and to have access to water recognized in Guatemala as a fundamental right. We have also learned of some of their success stories is cleaning up rivers and diversions.

During our visit in Guatemala, we had to chance to speak with individuals who were against the mining industry and explained to us the effects of what the issues the mines had caused to them and the communities. Emy Gonzalez and Luis Fernando from the Xinca Parliament explained to us how the Pan American Silver, Escobal mine has caused water shortages pollution and soil contamination. Water pollution is a common effect of mining and often occurs forms such as acid mine drainage, heavy metal contamination, and leaching, processing chemical pollution, or erosion and sedimentation.

Mining requires substantial quantities of water, approximately 250,000 liters per hour. The average family would only use about 60 liters of water per day. Mining companies, especially large-scale, need vast quantities of water to separate minerals from the rocks. These companies pay no utility fees for this water. Once the water dries up, the resulting reduction in agricultural productivity forces people to migrate from their traditional villages. Although 99.7% of the communities were against the mines, they still proceeded with work to build the mine referring to them as alternative energy.

The mining firms in the country are one of the pillars of corruption in Guatemala.  With the water wells being dried up, the families have no place to get water. They have no water to drink, or for their animals. Acid Mine Drainage occurs when sulfides in rocks are exposed to air and water, resulting in the production of sulfuric acid. In addition to acid run-off, Acid Mine Drainage causes further dissolving of heavy metals such as copper, lead, arsenic, zinc, selenium, or mercury into surface or groundwater. These effects disrupt the growth and reproduction of aquatic plants and animals, diminishes valued recreational fish species, degrades outdoor recreation and tourism, contaminates surface and groundwater drinking supplies, and causes acid corrosion of infrastructure like wastewater pipes

The community of La Cuchilla has significantly been affected by the Escobal mine. Located less than 500 meters north of the mining project, this community used to be the home of 81 families, but from as an effect of the destructions of the land. In 2015 long fracture to the earth went through the community causing structural damage to houses and declaring the area uninhabitable. Poverty is at 100% as a result of the mining. This community is the most intensely poor.

The water quality has been monitored at six points located up and down river from the Escobal mine over the past three years.  The monitoring point closest to the mine on the Escobal Creek is the site of water discharges from underground mine operations and contains high concentrations of chemical elements and potentially toxic metals, which present serious implications for the health of residents, their crops and animals. It also documents the drying up of at least 18 wells in communities within the municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, where the mine is located.

The Guatemalan government has been asked to decontaminate the water sources of the 18 beneficiary communities and to ensure their members access to water, as well as take on necessary actions to guarantee the life and physical integrity of these 18 communities.

Their findings revealed high levels of toxic metals in the three rivers in the region and stated that the water is not fit for human or animal consumption – or even irrigation – due to the levels of contamination. Today, residents look upon the rivers and other water sources with suspicion. Many people close to the mine have grown sick, in part because they avoid bathing due to the lack of confidence with the water because the mine has led to the contamination of the water.

Access to sufficient, affordable, and also clean and safe drinking water is easy for most Canadians. Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and is also water-rich. The province of Ontario shares the Great Lakes—which contain 18 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, shared with the United States.