Photo by Pete Oxford
The Trouble with Water in the Galapagos
Please Use Only as Much Water as You Need. Conserve Water.
In the Galapagos, slogans like these are ubiquitous in tourist-heavy zones—the messages these appear on door-hangers in hotels, introductory speeches on cruise ships, and travel pamphlets all over the islands.
And though the plea is inserted into lightly worded tourist literature, the problem with water is among the most severe and urgent issues facing the Galapagos Islands.
In an event for the Toyota International Teacher Program, Professor Arturo Keller of UCSB's Bren School of Environmental Science gave a special talk on water management that both top US and Galapagueno teachers attended. He offered insight into the complex issue gleaned from previous study and informal onsite surveys of San Cristobal's water situation.
A Dry History Lesson
The Galapagos Islands weren't colonized until the 1930's, and for good reason—the islands are naturally arid and barren, and unfit for human habitation. Among all the islands, there's only one natural freshwater source, and that's on the capital island San Cristobal. Just one freshwater source for 13 major islands spells bad news. Fast forward to 2008, to a booming tourism industry that's attracted around 40,000 full-time residents to the island over the years. And since no freshwater source has magically manifested itself in that time, the daunting challenge of providing water to an archipelago 600 miles off the coast of the mainland has now taken center stage on the Galapagos.
The problem has been widespread for decades, but it took until 2003 until the problem was discussed in a public forum. Then, in 2005, the water management issue was declared the most urgent problem in the Galapagos, but no clear policy was developed. A blueprint for an all-purpose water treatment center for the island was prepared, but as the projected cost ballooned from $13 million to $26 million it's been indefinitely set aside as infeasible.
To get an idea of the scope of the problem, let's look at San Cristobal, the island that's best off regarding water supply. There are 4 aquifers that pipe water directly to the central town—without any treatment. Residents have access to undrinkable water for 2 hours a day. Beyond that, they must buy a garrafon, a large water jug, from local suppliers.
Other Islands' Water Use
Other islands don't have it so good—they use a combination of imported water and brackish to satisfy their water needs. Brackish is a mix of fresh and seawater that's chlorinated. Though one Galapagos resident attending the lecture says he's drank the water all his life, it tastes disgusting and is unhealthy. He doesn't allow his children to drink it.
On Santa Cruz, the well water has long been contaminated by metals and shipping materials, rendering it undrinkable.
Raining in the Problem
Professor Keller offered some hope by outlining some potential solutions to the water management problems. First, he emphasized the importance of approaching the issue with an open mind, and adapting strategies to local culture (a sustainable bathroom compost system he designed for use in Mexico had to be abandoned because of a lack of cultural acceptance).
He advocated some broad moves to improve the current situation: creating adequate water storage, avoid relying on imports, and increasing education and awareness among the locals.
A few specific things that might help, according to Keller, are rainwater harvesting domestically and at schools, retention basins, contour trenches, the illustrious aforementioned composting latrines, and an EcoLavadero—a specially designed eco-wash station.
It remains to be seen whether the local teachers will seek to implement the suggestions. The Galapagueno teachers took notes, asked questions, and offered their take—and the event seemed like an encouraging small step in the right, damper direction.
30 of the top teachers in the US are making a trek across the Galapagos Islands in order to engage a series of global conservation issues in the Toyota International Teacher Program. I'm traveling alongside the educators to report on what we discover about the threats and wonders revealed in modern day Galapagos.