In the hills of central Honduras, about 20 miles west of Tegucigalpa, there lies an abandoned city.
It sits along the eastern bank of the Guacerique river, mile after mile of concrete row houses and narrow dirt lanes. They stretch along the flat lands from the river bank up to the bluffs that run out from the surrounding mountains. The river runs along the length of the city, the surrounding lands are fertile, but the city is without life.
Even in broad daylight, the city is so still that the birds alight for hours to sun themselves on the rooftops, and wild animals take shelter in the shells of the empty homes. This city that could house 50,000 people, lies empty because nobody thought of what to do with the sewage that the city dwellers would produce. Nobody could come up with a good way to treat the sewage before it polluted the river water and groundwater, the same water that 800,000 Tegucigalpans downriver depend on for drinking and cooking and bathing.
There is a way to treat sewage that renders the final water product completely clean, drinkable, safe to cook with, safe to bathe with. This method uses algae and other water plants growing in a system of ponds to extract all poisons from the sewage.
An algae pond system that would clean the sewage from a city of 50,000 people would require at most about one-half a square mile of relatively flat land, downstream from the city and with canal access to the river upstream and downstream from the ponds. There are several such areas downstream from Ciudad Mateo, at least according to the topographic maps ecoworld.com has obtained from the Honduran Instituto Geographica Nacional.
This means that instead of an empty city, one where the miles of concrete hollows are being considered by the municipal authorities for sale to use as mausoleums, Ciudad Mateo could be filled with life. The Honduran authorities are trying to decide what to do with this empty city right now. What they should do is build an algae pond system to treat the sewage from Ciudad Mateo; for design expertise, hire William Oswald, the Algae King from the University of California at Berkeley. Algae treatment costs only about one-tenth what mechanized sewage treatment plants cost, and they clean the water better than mechanized plants. They also require less energy input and less maintenance. The only reason they haven’t caught on in the developed world is they require a relatively large amount of land, which is not a problem in Honduras, or most of the developing world.
While they’re at it, the Hondurans should hire an architect or city planner from Curitiba, that Brazilian showcase of urban planning, to selectively blast wide boulevards through the rows of concrete structures. A solid grid of streets might be cost-efficient to build, but the efficiency of a more thoughtful system of roads and open spaces would more than pay for itself in the long run. Imagine Ciudad Mateo transforming itself from an empty city destined to become a mausoleum into a model city, filled with life. Children playing in the parks, young people chasing a soccer ball in the open places, farmer’s markets and music in the squares, and everywhere, big trees, clean water, and happy people.