August 2012

Rio Rocha - One Contaminated River, Several Tainted Lives

Bolivia, although a landlocked country, contains several bodies of water. Some are more important than others and Rio Rocha, for example, is a river than stands out in Cochabamba. As a matter of fact, this river flows within 7 municipals of the city and influences many lives on a daily basis.

By: Carlos Tinoco
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Miami, Florida – United States

Garbage at Rio Rocha
Photo: Carlos Tinoco

Rio Rocha obtained its name from a Spaniard named Martin de la Rocha. However, before the “Spanish conquered the Cochabamba Valley around 1538, that same river was known as Kunturillo, meaning condor” (Walter Sanchez). The river is not only significant because of its historical background, it also has many functions within the community. Sadly, Rio Rocha is not the same waterway as it once was several decades ago. A river that was once a beautiful gathering place for both citizens of Cochabamba and tourists alike is now one of the most contaminated rivers in Cochabamba. For locals, this river is much more than just a body of water. While some use the river water for work purposes such as washing cars, others use it agriculturally for cleaning and growing vegetation. Many depend on this body of water to make a living but, with such a high degree of contamination, the river has no reasonably hygienic use for people at all. The main groups of inhabitants mostly affected by the contamination in the river are painters, homeless, drug addicts, traders, and especially agriculturists Positive images of Rio Rocha are only present in memories. However, rather than simply speculating about the river’s condition, it is up to the younger generation to take action and restore this beloved river to a purified state.

From Pure to Toxic

Although domestic issues caused by the contamination are common, regional problems may also be just around the corner. What might a highly contaminated river imply for the surrounding population? Additionally, what would a solution for getting rid of such contamination entail? These questions are being answered by the Programa de AsistenciaAgrobioenergetica al Campesino (PAAC), who are making an effort to help improve the river’s current impure state. “PAAC is a non-profit private institution of sustainable development. PAAC strives to mitigate poverty and environmental degradation, and achieve positive sustainable development in its sphere of influence.” (PAAC-Bolivia). PAAC secretary Magdanela Medrano V. and PAAC coordinator Susana Alcaraz de Roque are among many in the organization currently working on ways to combat Rio Rocha’s contamination. According to the Bolivian Prensa, not only is the river unclean, it is also toxic. Companies are one of the major causes of this because they release such high amounts of chemicals into the water. Specific laws were enacted by the Municipal Government in order to prevent contaminating the river; however, these standards continue to be poorly enforced, both by political authorities and the general public. In 1972 a law was passed which prohibited the discarding of trash onto the streets and the dumping of industrial waste into bodies of water such as Rio Rocha. Years later in 1992, ‘law 1333’ was presented as a means of reinforcing the previous law of 1972. Since companies were and still remain one of the major factors in the river’s contamination, these laws attempted to put a stop to the industrial waste of factories in close proximity to the river. Furthermore, by 1998 companies were expected to completely abide by the law and stop all contamination of the water. Unfortunately, that never became a reality.

Garbage at Rio Rocha
Photo: Carlos Tinoco

The contamination of Rio Rocha causes hazardous health effects to those who come in contact with it. This commonly includes skin, eye, and stomach sicknesses, especially among the elderly and children. The dreadful odor produced by the river water is another reason for sicknesses. Certain insects are lured toward the river by this odor which results in many children being bitten and contracting diseases. Additionally, eating vegetables washed in Rio Rocha’s water often leads to hazardous health problems.

According to Magdanela Medrano, secretary at PAAC, animals are also endangered by the toxic water. A disease known as Aftosa Fever has now become common, killing off a considerable amount of land and aquatic life. One such animal that may be affected by river contamination is the Bufeo Dolphin, located in the Amazon. These river dolphins, only found in Bolivia, are in danger of extinction. Therefore, many groups such as PAAC find it crucial to purify Cochabamba´s waterways before contamination reaches other areas such as the Amazon. Although many solutions have been offered, it has proven difficult to effectively prevent the ongoing pollution of Rio Rocha.


Since Rio Rocha flows through 7 municipals, more than one treatment system is needed to prevent contamination reaching other bodies of water in the city. In fact, Magdanela Medrano stated that at least five treatment systems would be needed to purify Rio Rocha and restore its ecosystem to how it once was. A problem, however, is that investments are required for these systems. Adequate technologies for treating water exist within the country but there needs to be money to purchase and maintain them.

Washing buses in the river
Photo: Carlos Tinoco

Another potential solution could be authorities enforcing regulations for preventing contamination. However, certain sectors of the population are either not in favor of or choose not to follow these laws. A foreshadowing line of thought was provided by Magdanela Medrano and Susana Alcaraz de Roque: “By changing the culture of the population to a mindset of taking care of our planet, our environment, and our home, a concrete solution will begin to take its course.” They insist this mindset is important because it is pointless to have laws if people choose not to follow them. Furthermore, they stated that it may take at least a decade for people to successfully purify Rio Rocha, even with this new mindset. According to NinoskaLazarte, President of Concejo Municipal, “the recovery of the river is in the hands of the Executive. What one can expect of the municipal executive is unknown; resources exist, what is lacking is political will.” Both Magdalena and Susana agreed with this statement, emphasizing that lack of volition was a major concern. Magdalena and Susana explained the goals of PAAC in a crystal clear manner. Theprogrammottostates: “Cuidemos la vida, cuidemos el agua.” In other words, taking care of water resources will result in healthier and better life for the population. Whether or not the populace is taking solutions for Rio Rocha’s contamination seriously is debatable. What is certain is that there are groups in Cochabamba, such as PAAC, taking action to make a difference in the environment. The truth is that there are no boundaries to the extent in which an individual can help save the environment. For that reason, PAAC accepts volunteers throughout the year in projects such as management of watersheds, conservation of natural resources, alternative production, food security, and social and economic infrastructure. All of this is undertaken for the wellbeing of Cochabamba, Bolivia— the heart of South America.

A Local Vice:
The Game of “Cacho”

Cacho is one of the most popular games in the city of Cochabamba. Practiced in bars, chicherías, and restaurants, its popularity has reached such a level that there is even a “national” championship of cacho. The antecedents of cacho are found in card games introduced during colonial times. However, according to CiroBayo, a Spanish man living in Sucre during the end of the nineteenth century, it may have also derived from a Spanish dice game. In his book, Chuquisaca and La Plata Perulera, he explains that games of this type were “imported by Spanish soldiers” who, in their long hours, passed time playing dice and cards. What we do know, from the few known facts, the game of cacho was consolidated between the elite and popular classes in the early twentieth century.

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