From dump to urban wetland, wildlife returns to river in Chile's capital


SANTIAGO, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Birds, fish and flowers are returning to a river that cuts through Chile's capital after a decade-long effort transformed it from an eyesore filled with wastewater to an urban refuge for nature and wildlife.

Mauricio Fabry, head of the regional government's environmental office, said it is working with local districts to officially declare Santiago's Mapocho River an urban wetland, with legal protections to safeguard environmental gains.

"The Mapocho River is probably the most important urban and environmental landmark in Santiago's metropolitan region," Fabry said, adding that three of the 16 localities along the river have already moved to protect it.

"I've seen we have birds of prey like peregrine falcons hunting in the river, I've seen migratory birds like Franklin's gulls and there are more people looking at the river," Fabry said.

He said the Mapocho used to be a "dead river" with garbage, a foul odor and no vegetation. But he noted contamination and waste water have largely disappeared over the last decade.

Joaquin Moure, director of the Mapocho Vivo foundation that seeks to protect the river, said it has been a decade since a local water supply company diverted wastewater to treatment plants that once was destined for the river.

"It's been 10 years that wastewater outlets don't go into the river, 10 years of clean water flowing," Moure said. "And that's why species like Andean catfish and freshwater crabs are returning to the river."

Declaring the Mapocho River an urban wetland will make it easier to protect the natural state of the river by preventing real estate development, dumping and activities like sand and rock extraction, Fabry said.

He added the river has a number of "ecosystem services" like acting as a carbon sink, lowering the city's temperature by up to 2 degrees Celsius and helping control invasive species.

"We can't live without biodiversity," Fabry said. "People don't recognize this as something relevant, but people can't really live without biodiversity because we depend on biodiversity."

Reporting by Rodrigo Gutierrez; Additional reporting by Alexander Villegas; Writing by Alexander Villegas; Editing by David Gregorio

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