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Peru: Hydrocarbons Exploration Threatens Iquitos’ Water

This is part one of a series of three post about water-related problems in the city of Iquitos, Peru.

The Amazonian city of Iquitos is strategically located on the banks of three rivers: the Nanay, the Itaya, and the mighty Amazon. The city is also blessed with a tropical weather with copious rainfall. Although one might think that a city like Iquitos shouldn't have problems with the drinking water supply, the reality is quite different.

Sedaloreto [es], the municipal company responsible of the water management for the city, has not always done well. Although in recent years several reservoirs and a new plant for treatment and distribution have been built among other maintenance and expansion works, these efforts have not been enough to ensure an adequate water supply to the city. In addition, some of the contracts for these works have been embroiled [es] in corruption [es] allegations.

Nanay river close to the city of Iquitos. Photo by Pierre Pouliquin on Flickr published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  non-commercial license.

Nanay river close to the city of Iquitos. Photo by Pierre Pouliquin on Flickr published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  non-commercial license.

It is in the Nanay River where Sedaloreto has located its main water intakes, which sometimes during the dry season are not capable of catching the volume of water required by Iquitos. However, this is not the only problem.

In 2010 the researcher José Alvarez Alonso explained [es] the source of the water that the city drinks:

Iquitos es particularmente vulnerable a la sequía, porque el Nanay, de donde se abastece la ciudad, tiene sus nacientes en el llano amazónico, donde no existen fuentes subterráneas, sino la fuente de agua es la lluvia. Si el bosque es degradado o destruido, Iquitos sufrirá cada vez más crisis de este vital elemento.

Iquitos is particularly vulnerable to drought since the Nanay river, -from which the city takes its supplies-, has its source in the Amazonian lowlands, where the water is supplied by the rainfalls and not by groundwater springs. If the forest gets degraded or destroyed, Iquitos will increasingly suffer shortage crisis of this vital element.

Alvarez also explained in more detail how the Amazon forest acts over the river's water:

El bosque amazónico actúa como una fábrica de lluvia -hasta el 50% de las lluvias se originan en la evapotranspiración del bosque- y un 25% restante, originado en nubes de origen atlántico, no se condensaría si no hubiese bosques. El bosque también actúa como una esponja: favorece que el agua de la lluvia se filtre y empape el suelo, y también su follaje, y luego el agua escurre gradualmente. Donde el bosque ha sido destruido, las lluvias arrastran todo a su paso provocando huaycos e inundaciones, y contaminando los cursos de agua; unos días sin lluvia, sin embargo, bastan para dejar seco el cauce de un río.

The Amazon forest acts as a rain factory -up to 50% of the rainfall is originated by the forest vaporization and transpiration- and a remaining 25%, originated in clouds coming from the Atlantic, wouldn't get condensed if there were no forests. The forest also acts like a sponge: it favors the rainwater to seep and soak the soil and foliage, and then the water gets drained gradually. Where the forest has been destroyed, the rain washes and drags everything on its path, causing landslides, floods, and polluting waterways. A few rainless days, however, are enough to stop the river's stream and dry it up.

In April 2012, several citizens and civil society organizations, gathered in Iquitos under a Committee for the Defense of Water, issued the Declaration of Iquitos [es] which demands from authorities the compliance of the law and the disclosure of the documents and contracts related to the current exploration of hydrocarbons. The statement also summoned the people of Loreto to keep informed about this matter and to distribute and spread the information.

Among the statement, it also mentioned specific threats to the Nanay River's basin:

desde los años 90’ se identificó una de las amenazas principales al abastecimiento de agua de la ciudad de Iquitos, advirtiéndose las operaciones de las dragas para la exploración y explotación de oro en la Cuenca del Nanay. Actualmente esta situación se agrava, con la concesión hidrocarburífera a la Conoco Phillips en la cabecera de cuenca del río Nanay, para la explotación petrolera,

since the 90′ one of the main threats to water supply of the city of Iquitos was identified, being noticeable the operations of dredges for gold exploration and extraction in the Nanay Basin. Currently the situation is worsening with the hydrocarbon concession to ConocoPhillips for oil exploration at the head of Nanay River's basin,

Then, the statement noted that the oil company ConocoPhillips had already cleared out 180.74 hectares of vegetation and has made 15,560 dynamite detonations (one every 50 meters of each other) in 22 seismic lines to get data by means of the seismic prospecting method.

Nanay river in the Mishana reserve, Loreto, Peru. Photo by Howard G. Charing on Flickr published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic non-commercial license.

Nanay river in the Mishana reserve, Loreto, Peru. Photo by Howard G. Charing on Flickr published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic non-commercial license.

In May, Amazon Watch reported these claims by the Iquitos people to the ConocoPhillips's board of shareholders at Houston, Texas. Among other things, the Amazon Watch report cites the bio-geochemist Bob Stallard stating that “spills of formation waters and wastes associated with drilling could damage the Nanay as a drinking-water supply.”

This past August, ConocoPhillips disclosed its withdrawal plan from the 123 and 129 lots, which does not mean that the exploration has concluded, but that it goes to another level. As Professor Joseph Manuyama of the Committee for the Defense of Water explains [es] in an interview for the website Indigenous Rights Advocacy Program (PDDI),

a la fecha, de acuerdo a los planes de abandono que ha presentado la propia ConocoPhillips al Ministerio de Energía y Minas, ya se impactó de forma considerable la zona de captación y la cabecera de cuenca, siendo una zona de alta sensibilidad ambiental, tras casi dos años de exploración sísmica, la menos negativa según algunos entendidos. Hablamos de campamentos, helipuertos, deforestación, detonaciones en las líneas sísmicas cada 50 m. bajo 15 m. de la superficie por centenares de kilómetros.

to date, according to the withdrawal plan that ConocoPhillips has submitted to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the catchment zone and the basin head have already been significantly impacted, being a zone of high environmental sensitivity, after almost two years of seismic exploration, the less negative according to some experts. We are taking about camps, heliports, deforestation, detonations on seismic lines every 50 m. under 15 m. beneath the ground surface, extended over hundreds of kilometers.

Manuyama says it stands to reason that if Conoco itself mentions this degree of ecological impact in the jungle, it is likely the impact is actually even greater. Among other concerns, he adds:

En el instrumento en mención no se menciona la cantidad, ni el volumen de los residuos sólidos peligrosos y no peligrosos, ni cómo se ha desarrollado la disposición de los mismos.

Teniendo en cuenta la que las líneas sísmicas han intersectado a varios cuerpos de agua, no se mencionan la existencia de impactos por incremento de erosión, sedimentación o desestabilización de orillas que haya podido afectar las zonas de desove de los peces y quelonios.

De las áreas deforestadas (33.1 ha), no se menciona qué áreas y/o volúmenes se ha reforestado, teniendo en cuenta que cualquier alteración considerable en la cobertura vegetal pone en riesgo la calidad y cantidad del recurso hídrico.

The instrument in question does not declare the amount, neither the volume of hazardous and safe solid wastes, nor how the disposal process of the same has been carried out.

Considering that the seismic lines have intersected several water bodies, the report does not mention the impacts due to the increment of erosion, sedimentation or destabilization on the river's banks, that may have affected the spawning grounds for fish and turtles.

As for deforested zones (33.1 ha), it is not mentioned which area and/or volume has been reforested, considering that any significant alteration in vegetation threatens the quality and quantity of water resources.

Having analyzed this document and upon the understanding that ConocoPhillips is requesting permission for exploratory drilling for 48 oil wells, the Committee for the Defense of Water issued a statement [es] that among other points demands that an independent international audit be conducted, and that the regional government should “issue a new ordinance declaring the inviolability of the zone, in order to have a legal tool to defend the Nanay's basin”.

In recent months there have been crowded protest marches in Iquitos. In addition, the Committee for the Defense of Water is summoning more local organizations to achieve a higher awareness of this problem.

The Ombudsman's Office has taken note of these facts and has included [es] in its environmental conflicts list [es] the protests triggered by the “negative environmental impacts likely to occur at a watershed area considered the header of the river's basin, of high biodiversity, and the water supply for Iquitos”.

The Ombudsman has described the status of the conflict as “no dialogue” and defined as players the “Regional Government of Loreto, the Committee for the Defense of Water, Perupetro, the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the ConocoPhillips Company, and the NGOs Arcane Alliance and Amazon Watch “.

Original post published in Juan Arellano's personal blog [es].

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