Texas Tech empowers students to create solutions for river pollution in Central America.
Could lessons learned at Texas Tech University clean up one of the world's most polluted rivers, Rio Motagua?
This is the hope behind a $65,400 grant received by the International Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies (ICASALS) in Texas Tech's Office of International Affairs (OIA) and Texas Tech University Graduate School from the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. As a result, students, faculty and administrators from the Central American countries of Guatemala and Honduras gathered at Texas Tech to put some of those ideas into four researched presentations as part of a project titled “Convergence Research to Tackle Grand Challenges: A Unified Response to the Contamination of the Rio Motagua Basin.”
Director of ICASALS Jorge Salazar-Bravo and assistant professor of practice and graduate program director for interdisciplinary studies Cari Carter led eight undergraduates, one graduate student, faculty and administrators through the multi-week process. The group toured the City of Lubbock Water Treatment Plant, City of Lubbock Solid Waste, and spoke with Texas Tech Faculty Clifford Fedler, Danny Reible, Natasja van Gestel and dean of the Texas Tech Graduate School Mark Sheridan, about interdisciplinary research as the foundation to solve socioecological problems such as environmental contaminants and their influence on ecosystems.
According to The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organizational studying global water pollution, Rio Motagua is responsible for 2% of all plastic emissions to the oceans globally – around 20,000 tons annually. Untreated sewage, industrial waste, garbage and blackwater are regularly disposed of in the river near Guatemala City.
Part of reducing pollution is improving conservation among diverse groups of people, which is why the participants needed to be from various interdisciplinary areas such as architecture, agronomy/animal science, biology, chemistry, computer science, education, engineering, humanities, law and psychology. The participants toured conservation sites such as the Lubbock Lake Landmark, Palo Duro Canyon and Amarillo Botanical Gardens.
Students participated in online workshops before their arrival to explore potential solutions and worked in teams to prepare presentations about how they would combat the contamination in the Rio Motagua Basin.
“When students first started the online portion of the course, they did not understand the complexity of these issues or how broad their thinking needed to be to address issue severity,” said Carter. “They quickly learned that these issues were only able to be approached with an interdisciplinary lens as they were so complex there are no solutions - only mitigation.”
What were the group's conclusions, and will these lead to viable and economically feasible solutions to address a substantial environmental crisis in Central America? Below are brief synopses from the four groups.
Group 1 Synopsis
The first group asked the simple question of whether hegemony is an environmental issue for counties such as Guatemala. Hegemony is the leadership or dominance of a country or group over others.
“Hegemony affects the critical areas of our society,” said Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala agronomy student Ernesto Alejandro Gonzalez Salguero. “Politically in Guatemala, we don't have laws about use and extraction of water resources or laws about management of solid waste.”
The group constructed a three-step proposal through prevention, mitigation and management. This is done through education of the public and private sectors, the establishment of new, more punitive laws and application of a system. Group one planned to address river pollution by real-time monitoring combined with a three-step filtration system starting at the source of the river. Each filter would gradually reduce the size of contaminants as it passes through.
Group 2 Synopsis
The second group presentation focused on a transdisciplinary approach to the river basin contamination in the Motagua River. For this group, it begins near Guatemala City near the source of the river. The Motagua River system connects to major tributaries throughout Central America, dumping into the Gulf of Honduras and Caribbean Sea. The group proposed doing extensive research into the species living in the area, much like what is being done near the Mesoamerican reef in the Caribbean. The group also addressed one of the biggest obstacles facing the region: the ever-changing cultural structure and reaching people in their native language where they live.
“We are a multi-cultural country, so context is important,” said Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala law student Rocio Palacios.
The group decided the best remedy would be the use educational programs specific to each community to educate people on the serious economic and health risks of the river's pollution. They would do this through academia, local government and private industry.
Group 3 Synopsis
Much like the second group, group three took an educational approach to their proposal. They named their program “My GuaHo Planet” combining the two countries most directly impacted by pollution in the Motagua River. Phase one of the proposal addressed misinformation and how it relates to environmental education.
“The job of misinformation is to draw our attention away from important, accurate information and apply it to invalid or unrealistic events,” said Universidad Technológica de Honduras industrial engineering student group Louis Alberto Lopez Caceres.
The group used conflicting comments about the state of river contamination by the Guatemalan government and neighboring country Honduras as examples.
The group then turned its focus on educating the population about pollutants in and around the river region. Their research found 20% of the population of Guatemala has no formal education. The group's research shows most Central American countries rely on municipal landfills rather than solid waste treatment plants. Educating the public on the difference in the two and the benefits of using solid waste treatment plants leads to better waste disposal choices through intrinsic motivation.
Group 4 Synopsis
The fourth and final group took a different approach by looking at Las Vacas River, one of the tributaries for the Motagua River. Despite being a tributary near Guatemala City that feeds a massive amount of pollution into the Motagua River, a lack of water quality data has severely impacted the understanding of the role of the Las Vacas River. Group four proposed vetting a team of researchers to collect the data. Then with the data, put together a management strategy which includes educational programming to be used in similar situations globally.
The data would demonstrate toxicity levels in phosphates and carbon emissions as well as lack of acceptable levels of oxygen, variations in pH, bacteria, nitrogen levels, salts and much more.
“Having access to data could impact how education strategies are developed and updated so that criteria are adopted by children alongside development,” said Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala chemistry student Carmen Lucia Vasquez Maldonado.
Once the data from this team is collected, the group emphasized the need to have a better system of managing collected data and distributing it to the public. They suggested utilizing universities to store data which will be shared with the local national government, as well as the public. Since there is a significant variation in languages, the group also suggested distribution of information in more visual forms to cross language barriers.
Upon the conclusion of the students' presentations, several have started the implementation process of their proposals, with most using them as part of their degree programs.
“With protecting water resources and utilizing conservation practices being of vital importance to the world, the depth and interdisciplinarity of the presentations from these students were well thought out and highlighted the basic needs from all sectors of the world's economy,” said Sheridan.