Progress and tradition in water management: the case of Guatemala

Guatemalan scientist Claudia Romero and biologist Ramon Folch discuss the importance of water recovery for preserving natural resources and the environment

The fourth debate in the Women Scientists for the Environment cycle organised by Casa Amèrica Catalunya in collaboration with DIPLOCAT dealt with the importance of promoting research on waste and surface water sanitation treatments to ensure the recovery of natural resources and prevent their depletion and deterioration. The cycle includes a series of debates offering a female perspective on the major issues that will be the future focus of scientific research for the preservation of the planet and our lives, during which leading scientists from Latin America discuss issues around the pandemic, the climate, water, biodiversity and mountains with Catalan scientific commentators.

In this fourth session, the Guatemalan scientist who developed a natural water decontamination method that can also be applied to urban and industrial constructions, Claudia Romero, and renowned biologist, ecologist, professor and botanist Ramon Folch, discussed how water can be managed to safeguard a sustainable supply. Folch began the conversation by emphasising that water treatment is a common goal for all, albeit with a range of varied contexts existing in different countries. For her part, Romero talked about her commitment to the recovery of Lake Amatitlán, which is located more than 5,000 meters from the country's capital and receives significant pollution loads from industry and agriculture, with the consequent severe anthropogenic impact. The scientist commented that the study of the pollution in the lake is an enigma because it stretches from the Mayan era to the present. In her opinion, its recovery could be a first step and an example for future action in other parts of the country and the world.

Next, Folch explained the paradox that exists in Barcelona, from his experience of managing Aigües de Barcelona. The titanic efforts made to treat the city's wastewater, turning it into water that's even cleaner than the water obtained from river basins, is not matched by its efforts to reuse it. The situation means that excess water effectively spills out to sea, which is difficult to comprehend in a generalised context of water scarcity. With that in mind, Romero pointed out that in Guatemala, 77% of the water is treated to a secondary level, while the remaining 33% is not even treated. Moreover, this deficiency exists despite Guatemala's water scarcity issues, which have a considerable impact on the sizeable part of its agricultural sector that still essentially functions without technology, especially given the country's dual climate of dry and rainy seasons.

The Guatemalan scientist stressed that her scientific work takes the country's specific context into account, both in terms of its climate and its diversity of views and civilisations. Her natural decontamination method incorporates local knowledge of using aquatic plants that facilitate the regeneration of water from a sociocultural dimension. In her opinion, the combination of traditional methods and more modern treatment systems encompasses the two visions that coexist in the country: the western and the indigenous. The latter is estimated to represent 47% of the population. Based on her own personal experience, Romero believes that these two sciences must learn to talk and come together "because the combination can be doubly successful".

Both scientists highlighted the water supply problems in large urban concentrations. According to Folch, to meet the needs of this part of the population, we have to transfer or transport water from other areas, which results in failings in both those areas and the territory as a whole, "causing history to repeat itself".

Finally, Folch pointed out that the distance between history/tradition and technology/progress should not be insurmountable because, in the end, they all have a role to play in humanity's evolution, and he highlighted the sociological reality presented by Romero. For her part, Romero lamented that recovering the lake to provide a source of drinking water was, in light of the emergence of other more fundamental problems, not deemed essential in her country. She ended her participation with a Mayan quote that says: "He who does not take care of his land does not love himself".

Upcoming talks

The Women Scientists for the Environment cycle puts the spotlight on female scientists who stand out for their perseverance and success in natural research fields. It features women who have become a point of reference in their field, created a working school, made a significant scientific discovery, had their work published in highly regarded scientific journals or received international awards.

The next sessions of the cycle will feature contributions from: Tatiana Espinosa, winner of the Jane Goodall Hope and Inspiration Ranger Award for her work in the Amazon; Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia for eight years; and Yolanda Kakabadse, who campaigned for the Declaration on Environmental Sustainability in Latin America. They will be accompanied by the Catalan scientific commentators Àlex Richter-BoixDavid Bueno and Vladimir de Semir.