In the western highlands of Chile, the water of the expansive Lluta valley (length 147 km, basin area 3400 km2) suffers from contamination by both natural and man-made chemicals, resulting in critically elevated concentrations of heavy metals, high salinity, and low pH. The watershed reaches approximately 200,000 people in the Arica and Parinacota regions of Chile, many of whom depend on agriculture for a living. The greatest culprit of failing agriculture is boron, a metal that is difficult to remove and is highly concentrated in certain river branches. The Colpitas and Azufre rivers in particular contain boron levels that are more than 700 times the permissible amount. Boron may also cause infertility and teratogenic effects; however, this has not been studied in the region. Arsenic is a known toxic metalloid with carcinogenic and other hazardous health effects; epidemiological evidence from Chile shows a dose dependent connection between chronic arsenic exposure and various forms of cancer. Thus water has become a source of social conflict in the Lluta watershed, and competition for the limited resource involves many aspects of society - including economics, law and social policy.
The potential beneficiaries are Los Molinos and Chapisca, two communities of subsistence farmers in the Lluta valley. Los Molinos (pop. 140) and Chapisca (pop. 95) are representative of most highland villages in the area, and their average income is approximately $2.00 USD/day. Although irrigation water comes from the Lluta River, the people are dependent on weekly government trucks to bring potable drinking water. To improve the region's mental, physical, and economical well being, a sustainable solution that will reduce boron and arsenic is highly needed.
The Lluta Watershed Restoration group, formed by undergraduates, graduate students, and professors at Northwestern, proposes to take a bottom-up approach to the multi-dimensional problem. We will work with local Chilean communities to implement a natural and artificial water distillation system that is adapted to their mode of life and environmental circumstances. By addressing the fundamental problem of water quality through a scientific and culturally-sensitive approach, we hope to instigate an innovative and sustainable change in the Lluta valley area.
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