Early voyages that serendipitously came upon the Galapagos Islands often stopped, hoping to find potable water and food to refill their reserves before continuing on their way. Though the archipelago appeared abundant with giant tortoises and other wildlife, sources of freshwater were often non-existent. Perhaps these early explorations were simply foreshadowing the future difficulties of water availability in the Galapagos Islands.
This archipelago, made popular in Charles Darwin’s writings while aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in the 1800’s, has since been transformed into a dichotomy of conservation and human exploitation. On one hand, approximately 97% of the Islands are protected by the Galapagos National Park, a rich landscape of biodiversity, beauty, and a gem of endemism. On the other hand, the Islands are threatened by increasing tourism, illegal immigration, overburdened and insufficient water infrastructure, and general struggles in regard to water management and protection. For instance, on Santa Cruz Island, the population has grown dramatically since the early 1990’s, and available freshwater on the island (in deep subsurface fissures) is contaminated with human wastewater. Because of the lack of potable water, bottled water is supplied throughout the Galapagos Islands through private enterprises. In addition, expansion of the population and the popularity of this destination by tour boats has led to nearshore marine water contamination. These water problems have various impacts on the local population, natural resources, and marine wildlife.
This being said, water issues in the Galapagos Islands are not all gloom and doom. To a certain degree, because of its biodiversity and designation as an almost entirely protected park land, the Galapagos Islands have a rare opportunity to improve their current water problems. Strong players such as the Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos National Park, local municipalities, and educational institutions in Ecuador, Europe, and the United States are working together to understand the water challenges in this archipelago, develop monitoring strategies, and devise solutions for water protection and infrastructure improvements. In the capital city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, a new wastewater treatment plant was recently completed to handle increased sewage treatment due to tourism activities, reducing a direct/raw wastewater discharge to the ocean. In addition, a state of the art science center was just completed to conduct research through the collaboration of the University of North Carolina and Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Improvements and collaborations such as these will likely continue to develop due to the scientific and cultural importance of these islands.
In many ways, the Galapagos Islands are a microcosm of the global water challenge, where increasing population and decreasing water resources and protection of these resources is becoming more common. Through scientific research, technological advances, increased education, and investment in infrastructure, many of these challenges are being addressed. The question is not whether actions to address these water challenges will succeed or fail- but how they will be solved. When it comes to the protection and assurance of safe water for the protection of people, wildlife, and natural resources – there is no option for failure.
Locals from Santa Cruz Island swimming at Laguna Las Ninfas.
The lagoon is a popular recreation area but is contaminated from human wastewater disposal.