Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Specter of Water War Looms Over Guaraní Aquifer

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 20 2004 (IPS) - NGOs denounce an alleged Washington conspiracy to take over South America's Guaraní Aquifer. Officials and experts alike say it is a crazy notion.

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The placid waters of the Guaraní Aquifer, an enormous underground reservoir beneath 1.2 million square km of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, is at the center of a contentious debate.

A conservation project for the aquifer, which began to be implemented in 2003, triggered a volley of accusations between those entrusted with carrying the initiative forward and the civil society groups that warn of a supposed U.S.-led conspiracy to take control of this important source of freshwater.

Over the past three years, scientists, environmentalists and governments drew up the Project for the Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development of the Guaraní Aquifer System, with the aim of establishing its potential and the dangers it faces in order to set up joint management among the four countries that share the reservoir.

The aquifer beneath the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) countries holds an estimated 37,000 cubic km of water, though just 40 to 80 cubic km can be accessed in the areas where the reservoir is recharged.

A pro-democracy group of Argentine members of the military, CEMIDA, issued a statement earlier this year that the alleged activity of terrorist groups in the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (where Iguazu Falls is located) was a pretext by Washington to try to beef up its own military presence there “and silently take over the Guaraní Aquifer” through the conservation project.

Founded in the 1980s, CEMIDA is a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to protecting human rights, and tends to take positions towards the left of the political scale. It is made up of both retired military personnel and civilians.

“The United States set up a system to determine the size of the aquifer, ensure its sustainable use and prevent any kind of contamination, (and) for this effort it put at the head of the research the World Bank, the Organization of American States (OAS) and other bodies that are under its control,” states the CEMIDA report, written by history professor Elsa Buzzone.

Washington created a budget of 26 million dollars “and suggested the ways that indigenous communities and civil society would participate in order to maintain control (over the aquifer) until it is considered convenient,” says the text.

This thesis is shared by the organizing groups of the Tri-Border Social Forum, which is to take place Jun. 25-27 in the northeastern Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú.

But the secretary-general of the Guaraní Aquifer Project, Brazil's Luiz Amore, told Tierramérica that such charges “don't make sense.”

The project emerged as an initiative of the four countries that share the aquifer, and it was they who asked for financial assistance from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), created with contributions from various countries and under the financial management of the World Bank, he explained.

During the past four years, civil society organizations have participated in different facets of the program, said Amore.

“From Brazil, which has 71 percent of the aquifer in its territory, 176 institutions participated, including national and state bodies, universities and NGOs,” said the project head.

The project's national divisions, comprising officials from each country, chose the OAS as the executor agency of the initiative, which is financed by 13.4 million dollars from GEF and 12 million from the four governments, and the rest from other donors for a total of 26.7 million dollars, Amore said.

A Brazilian water rights network of some 60 organizations, also questions the Guaraní Aquifer Project.

“There is no transparency” in the project's contracts, nor is there access to its technical data, such that “Amore is negotiating our sovereignty and we can't know to whom he is passing the information he receives,” while he exercises a “dictatorial power” to decide who will participate in the process, says network leader Leonardo Moreli.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and GEF should audit the project, Moreli said in a Tierramérica interview.

Furthermore, “it is not normal that there are Green Berets (a special division of the U.S. army) in Entre Ríos and Misiones (northeastern Argentine provinces) engaged in exercises against dengue,” said Moreli with a note of irony, in reference to the CEMIDA report.

According to Amore, Moreli's accusations are an attempt to gain better footing for carrying out aquifer-related projects for citizen awareness and education, which are to be financed through the Citizen Fund, which has a budget of 240,000 dollars.

“It is a disgrace. Once the four countries agree on a project to establish preventative actions and not just to remedy the situation, there are suspicions and fears,” said Amore.

If the governments wanted to privatize the aquifer, he said, “It would be under the authority of the countries, not the project.” But the secretary-general clarified his position in the matter: “Water is a social good that has an economic value, but that does not mean a sales value. This is about a resource to be protected from contamination and for the use of all.”

Uruguayan geology expert Danilo Antón, who specializes in underground water resources, agrees that the accusations that Washington is trying to gain control of the Guaraní Aquifer “are outside of reality”.

“There could be strategists who fantasize about it, but it is not sustainable under any logic,” he said.

The water from the aquifer can only be used locally, in hundreds of communities, but exploiting its deeper reaches “is difficult and very expensive,” said Antón.

“To empty the aquifer, most of which is more than 1,000 meters below ground, would require a pumping effort that is not economical and is technically impossible.”

“Another thing is the fear that they will privatize the wells or the distribution systems, but that depends on the governments,” Antón said.

It was the Uruguayan geologist who in 1996 proposed the name “Guaraní” for the aquifer, which previously went by different names in each of the four countries. The new name pays tribute to the indigenous nation that historically lived in the region encompassed by the underground reservoir.

 
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