Polluted Bay Is the Price of Progress in Cartagena


For nearly four centuries, Cartagena was a colonial city overlooking an emerald bay dotted with coral islands. Then, progress struck.

An oil refinery was built on the shore in 1955, attracting other petrochemical plants. About the same time, the World Bank provided financing to create a city sewer system. The canal that connects the bay to this country's largest river was straightened in the 1950s and again in the 1980s to make it more navigable.

At first, these measures were praised for reviving a jewel of a city that had become a backwater early this century and for providing balance to a local economy that otherwise would have depended too much on tourism.

Cartagena, with a 70-foot-deep bay, became the Caribbean's most active port. Half of Colombia's imports enter through Cartagena, and one-third of its exports leave from here. Its population rose tenfold, reaching more than 700,000.

Then, the bay's color changed from emerald to adobe in places. People realized that progress was destroying Cartagena Bay. The United Nations declared the bay among the most heavily polluted in the Caribbean.

"If we do not take immediate action, we are going to have a major crisis," said Fabio Castellanos, director of Cartagena's Environmental Department.

The costs of cleaning up the bay are estimated, conservatively, at $1 billion--far more than Cartagena or Colombia can afford. Nor can a single international agency foot the bill in these times of slimmer governments and fewer contributions.

Instead, dozens of local, national, foreign and international governmental and private organizations--ranging from the United Nations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Colombian industrialists--are working together to solve the problems.

"There are a thousand studies dispersed all over the place," said Cecilia Bermudez, director of the Dique Canal Regional Corp., the government agency that runs the canal. "We will put them together into a database."

The most urgent matter involves the Dique Canal, which connects the bay to the Magdalena River. The 70-mile canal linking several natural lakes was finished in the 1920s by American engineers who had just built the Panama Canal. It was connected to the bay in 1934.

The Dique Canal, with 270 turns, was little used until Esso built a refinery in Cartagena. Then, the government eliminated two-thirds of the curves, and the oil giant transported bunker oil--a low-grade product used mainly for heating--through the canal and on to the U.S. Now, the canal carries 80% of Colombian bunker oil exports.

In the 1980s, Ecopetrol--the government company that now owns the refinery--insisted on eliminating even more curves, leaving just 50. "They turned the canal into a branch of the Magdalena River," said Vicente Mogollon, a former environmental minister who is a Cartagena native, "and rivers can silt up anything."

Silt from the Magdalena is building a delta where the canal empties into the bay--a sandbar that grows 200 yards a year. Sediment is smothering the bay's coral beds and islands, now an underwater national park. "In seven or eight years, it will divide the bay," said Castellanos.

Besides impairing navigation, a divided bay has more difficulty cleaning itself of other pollutants, such as waste water from ships, sewage from the city and industrial waste.

Now, with the collaboration of Cartagena's industrialists and various agencies, an effort is being made to avert the bay's destruction. "In five years, we hope that things will be different, but we have to act quickly," said Castellanos. "If we do nothing, we will end up without a bay, without a [coral] park, and we will be giving a third-class death to one of our great natural resources."

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