Protesters walk through the Guaire river in Caracas.
Opposition demonstrators walk through the river Guaire during clashes with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. Marco Bello/Reuters

In Caracas, the Guaire River is synonymous with excrement and garbage. That has given President Nicolás Maduro a handy metaphor for recent anti-government demonstrations.

This story was originally published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

Last week, a photo from Caracas, Venezuela, showed a group of protesters crossing the polluted waters of the Guaire River to escape tear gas launched by National Guard units. They showed no signs of revulsion, just fear.

The image was later used by President Nicolás Maduro's ruling PSUV party to make fun of the protesters: “To God what is God's. To Caesar what is Caesar’s. And to the Guaire what is the Guaire's,” the party declared, suggesting that their opponents belonged in the excrement-filled river.

The official media and Maduro himself used the Twitter hashtag #AlGuaireLoQueEsDelGuaire—“To the Guaire What Belongs in the Guaire”—in discussing his opponents, whom the government has for years branded as "squalid" (los escualidos).

Referencing the Guaire has now become a fad. Suddenly, Caracas residents are again denigrating the river because of its filth, even though it has been an iconic part of the capital since the city's foundation.

“The Guaire IS Caracas. The river appears in the first map of the city. It is the city's DNA,” said Pedro Garcia del Barrio, an architect and urban planner who runs the Taller H20+Ccs at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. “Without water there is no city. The Guaire is the face of Caracas, the picture of nature within the city. That's why London and Paris made the Thames and the Seine their main axis.”

Former President Hugo Chavez was well aware of the need to reclaim the 45 miles of river that cross the city. He made many boasts during his years in power, at one point promising that within a year people would be able to swim in its clean waters. “The Guaire River will be cleaned by my government, and the people of Caracas will be able to navigate it,” he declared in 2005. “I invite all of you to bathe in the Guaire.”

The Chavez government's ambitious project, launched in June that year, promised to reverse the impact of Caracas's urban development. By that point, the river had become a huge open-air sewer, serving as the principal collector of the metropolitan area’s untreated sewage and toxic substances. Only 12 percent of the city's wastewater was treated at the time, and the project sought to raise that to 90 percent.

The project was expected to cost $370 million, with part of the financing provided by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). It was designed to treat the wastewater, improve the infrastructure and educate people about the need to protect the river. But the the government postponed the completion date from 2006 to 2021, and some media reports have questioned what happened to the money.

A cleanup both possible and necessary

“As time passes, it becomes more necessary to clean up the Guaire,” said environmentalist Alejandro Alvarez. “We are throwing away a natural resource that we will need sooner or later. We are seeing that already, one year after water rationing began. And we will be more vulnerable every day, because of the shortage of water.”

Scientists stress that water resources are becoming ever more important amid the evidence of climate change.

The problem is that Caracas residents know the Guaire only as a sewer because that's what it has been since the 1960s. There are many examples showing that even the most polluted rivers can be cleaned up, such as the Pasig in Manila.

By 1990 the Pasig was biologically dead as the result of residential and industrial contamination. A cleanup program focused on its 48 tributaries. One tributary that was completely clogged with garbage was selected for a project to treat its waters and organize volunteers to protect the river. Today, that tributary is free of garbage, and doesn’t even smell bad anymore.

Even more impressive was the clean up of London’s River Thames, which was once described as “dead from a biological point of view.” And in Madrid, the government created a park along the banks of the Manzanares River and integrated the waterway into the rest of the Spanish capital.

The Guaire River may also have the opportunity to become something other than the butt of jokes.

Javier Val, studying for a masters degree in environmental engineering at Cranfield University, north of London, believes the river can be cleaned up to the point where its water becomes potable through a combination of filtration and disinfection.

And architects Natalia Linares and Ricardo Avella submitted a proposal in 2012, titled “Metrogullies,” that would turn the Guaire's 23 gullies within Caracas into environmental corridors, bike paths, and recreational areas.

“The Guaire is a river of possibilities,” said García Del Barrio. “We have to look again for the city's sustainability. Caracas has lost its links to the Caribbean and the Guaire. It's time to turn that river into the city's main boulevard. We must stop throwing garbage into something that belongs to us. We cannot continue hurting ourselves."

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