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ARGENTINA: Open Sewers a Health and Environmental Risk

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 25 2006 (IPS) - The gap between the rich North and the impoverished developing South is reproduced in the Argentine capital. Far away from the well-heeled northern districts, the people living on the south side of Buenos Aires are “on the verge of a health and sanitation collapse.”

That was the conclusion reached by the city ombudsperson’s office (the Defensoría del Pueblo de la Ciudad) in an investigation spurred by complaints from local residents of the southern suburbs.

The study carried out by the ombudsperson’s office reported that many of the 150,000 people in the southern districts live in slums where the works carried out by the government to connect household plumbing pipes to the sewer systems are “incomplete and deficient,” leading to “open-air sewers” and the contamination of drinking water.

Carlos Tcholakián, coordinator of the National Social Forum on Health and the Environment, told IPS that his organisation has been complaining for two years about the “calamitous situation” outlined by the report presented Monday by the ombudsperson’s office.

“In 2004 we called for a nutritional and environmental emergency to be declared in the city,” said the activist.

According to the Forum, an umbrella group comprised of around 30 social organisations, there are 180,000 children under five living below the poverty line in the Argentine capital. Of that total, 77 percent live on the south side of the city, 12 percent in the east, and only seven percent in the wealthiest areas, in the north.

“These children live in a polluted environment, in slum housing, and are poorly nourished, which is why we have been warning that a Chernobyl could occur at any moment in Buenos Aires,” said Tcholakián, referring to the environmental and health disaster caused in 1986 by the explosion at a nuclear plant in that Ukrainian city.

The environmental and health risks have also been signaled by the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, which in 2005 brought legal action in court over the difference in the quality of public services offered by public and private companies in the capital, depending on the neighbourhood.

According to the Association, which filed charges against the municipal government for “discrimination,” residents of the southern neighbourhoods have poor garbage collection services, fewer schools and hospitals than are needed to serve the local population, and water, gas, transportation and power services that are the target of continuous complaints from users.

The study by the ombudsperson’s office states that the contamination of water from open-air sewers especially affects children, who face the risk of diseases like hepatitis, gastroenteritis, cholera, meningitis, typhoid and polio. “Mothers say their children are constantly falling ill,” states the report.

In fact, as a result of the large number of cases of children affected by waterborne pathogens reported by local health care centres, the ombudsperson’s office ordered the city government to carry out a detailed registry of patients and their illnesses, in order to have a statistical database and design a better health care system.

The ombudsperson’s office also discovered illegal electric power hook-ups, as well as open dumps that are home to rats and even snakes.

Some slum dwellings were built in the vicinity of a drainage canal for a nearby stream, meant to absorb excess rainwater and curb flooding in the area.

Ombudswoman Alicia Pierini declared that the “sewer, storm drain and drinking water system has collapsed” in this area of Buenos Aires, which includes the neighbourhoods of Villa Soldati, Lugano, Mataderos and Bajo Flores.

She blamed the situation on “a lack of maintenance, planning and investment” by the government authorities.

While this area of the city is equipped with drinking water, sewage and storm drain systems, they have not been properly maintained or expanded.

Pierini said she had witnessed “unbelievable things” in Villa Soldati, such as broken water pipes tied up with wire in areas inundated with foul-smelling water.

“There is an extremely serious pollution problem here, and we have to think about what to do,” she said, stressing the need to enforce respect for “the human rights that are being violated” by this situation, such as the right to health, to living in a healthy environment, and to decent housing.

Buenos Aires deputy ombudsman Atilio Alimena explained that the main running water and sewage networks reach the southern suburbs of the capital, but “the branch connections made do not comply with the technical specifications established for health protection purposes,” since many were made by the local residents themselves.

“The law stipulates that the state is responsible for public works, and not the people, who construct the installations they need in the absence of the necessary public works,” stressed Alimena.

The city environment secretary, Marcelo Vensentini, acknowledged that “there is a crisis” and blamed it on the “lack of investments” by Aguas Argentinas, the company responsible for piped water and sanitation services in Buenos Aires until recently

Aguas Argentinas was a consortium in which the main shareholder was the Suez water company from France. Last month, the federal government rescinded the concession granted to the French corporation, for breach of contract.

A new state-run company, Aguas y Saneamientos Argentinos, has been created to take over these services.

Tcholakián partly concurs with this assessment. “There has been a lack of investment, assistance and oversight, but not due to a lack of money, because the resources are there, and the works needed are not costly. What has been lacking above all is political will,” he charged.

In response to this situation, Oscar Feito, spokesman for Buenos Aires Mayor Jorge Telerman, announced that the mayor would be meeting with the pertinent city authorities and “has not ruled out the declaration of a health alert in the affected areas in the south of the city.”

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