Civil Society, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Something Smells Rotten in the Capital

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 18 2006 (IPS) - The stench and the bubbles of methane gas make it all too clear that nothing could possibly survive in the river that runs through greater Buenos Aires. That is further driven home by the plastic bags, bottles and all kinds of junk floating on the surface and the mountains of garbage lining the banks.

Thousands of factories operate along the river, which is also lined with slum neighbourhoods where millions of people live without piped water or sewage services.

“The waters of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin are a veritable sewer,” the office of the auditor general of Argentina concluded in a report released this month.

The report warns of the risk of a “sanitation catastrophe” posed by the pollution of the 64-km Matanza River, which is known as the Riachuelo in the last eight km before it runs into the Rio de la Plata estuary.

The Matanza-Riachuelo basin covers 2,240 square km in urban, suburban and semirural areas, and is inhabited by 3.5 million people from all socioeconomic levels.

The governments of Argentina, Buenos Aires province and the capital itself have jurisdiction over the river basin. But there is no specific body with far-reaching authority to plan and coordinate clean-up efforts and other measures. The authority of the police in each jurisdiction to penalise companies for dumping waste into the river is also unclear.

Nor has there been any response from the national or local authorities since the report was published.

The local residents only have a vague hope that the current government of the city of Buenos Aires, which has given some indications of awareness of the gravity of the longstanding problem, will do something.

The severe pollution of a river that runs right through the metropolitan area of the capital, the failure of authorities to do anything about the problem for decades, and the indifference of most local residents stand in sharp contrast to the recent protests led by the people of the Argentine town of Gualeguaychú, near the Uruguayan border.

For the past few months, thousands of residents of that town in the province of Entre Ríos have held demonstrations against the construction of two paper pulp factories on the Uruguayan side of a river that forms the border between Argentina and Uruguay.

The provincial government and local businesses and residents in Entre Ríos, worried about the pulp mills’ potential impact on the environment, have joined forces in an attempt to get the Finnish and Spanish companies building the plants to move them away from the border.

But little fuss has been made over the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, which has been heavily polluted for over a century, and has never been the focus of any concerted clean-up effort.

The factories operating along the river, several of which have done so for 100 years or more, merely form part of the urban landscape, while generations of local residents have grown up with the river’s foul smell, which they accept as normal. For the people of Buenos Aires, the word “riachuelo” is synonymous with a sewage-like odour.

According to statistics from the “executive committee of the plan for environmental management and administration of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin”, a total of 3,527 factories operate along the banks of the river, many of which are sources of pollution. Sewage pipes also illegally run directly into the river.

The “executive committee”, which was established in 1993, is in charge of carrying out 12 different projects, only four of which are currently being implemented.

The majority of the people living along the river have no clean water. In addition, 66 percent lack sewage services. The private companies that took over the water utility failed to live up to their commitment to bring piped water and sanitation to unserved areas of the city, and the state has now regained control of the public services.

In an interview with IPS, the president of the association of local residents in the neighbourhood of La Boca, Alfredo Alberti, said the report released by the office of the auditor general was “excellent.”

For years, people in that neighbourhood have been complaining about the pollution in the river, but their protests had fallen on deaf ears.

In 2001, the country’s ombudsperson’s office issued a warning on the alarming state of the river and the risks to the people living along its banks. Within the next few weeks, the office will make public a second resolution stating that no progress has been made to address the problem, which in some respects has even gotten worse, said Alberti.

“We are very grateful for the Gualeguaychú phenomenon, because it has placed the question of the environment in the spotlight,” he said. “It also fills us with a healthy sense of envy, because they have mobilised tens of thousands of people, and we have only mobilised 1,500.”

He also mentioned several differences that would help explain the contrast between the two cases.

In Entre Ríos, industry has made efforts to become more green-friendly, and the protesters have the backing of the local, provincial and national governments. By contrast, in the Matanza-Riachuelo basin there are “political and economic interests” that obstruct any attempt at cleaning up the waterway, while the local government authorities from the different political parties protect the companies, he said.

Operating along the river are tanneries, metal plants, food factories, meat plants and a broad range of other industries, some of them dating back to long before any kind of environmental awareness had developed among local residents. The residents of the poor neighbourhoods, meanwhile, constitute the potential political clientele of local governments, which favours the status quo, said Alberti.

Successive clean-up plans have failed because of a lack of political will and adequate institutions to implement them.

The most significant example of this in recent times involved a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to clean up the Riachuelo. The IDB loan was granted in the 1990s, but was ultimately diverted towards emergency social services in 2002 during the worst depression in the history of Argentina.

The most alarming point raised by the office of the auditor general is the fact that there are 13 slums in the Riachuelo basin – some located right on the banks of the river – which are home to 500,000 people.

“In the event of an environmental emergency, this is a highly vulnerable population,” warns the report, which adds that “There are no epidemiological studies that could be used to make health projections.”

The report includes a detailed list of the factories along the river and the pollutants found in the water, as well as their effects on human health. It mentions the dichlorobenzenes used in the chemical industry, which can cause kidney and liver damage, as well as dizziness and headaches. Various hydrocarbons, all carcinogenic, were also found in the water, among other highly toxic substances.

The main sources of pollution are household sewage and industrial waste. Heavy metals like lead, mercury, zinc, cadmium, copper, magnesium and nickel, unprocessed solid urban waste and agrochemicals like pesticides are all dumped into the river.

A health study carried out with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency and cited by the office of the auditor general revealed the presence of “high concentrations of lead in the bloodstreams of more than 50 percent of cases studied” among children in an area of the basin popularly known as “Villa Inflamable”.

“The high levels of pollutants registered in the waters of the Riachuelo and many of its tributaries, as well as the soil and underground water, represent a serious health threat,” stresses the report by the office of the auditor general. “The worst environmental degradation is found in the lower basin, where the bulk of the population is concentrated.”

“In this area, the damage to river life is total, and any use of the river is impossible,” the researchers found. During a field visit to the area, they observed the “constant bubbling” of methane gas, open-air garbage dumps, sunken boats and floating islands of junk. The propeller on one of the boats transporting the researchers actually got caught on a chunk of refuse.

“In the event of an environmental emergency we would be facing a health catastrophe, because the area is already simultaneously home to high levels of pollution in the surface waters, soils and underground waters and a population that is vulnerable to negative environmental conditions,” the study highlighted.

To promote the recovery of the waterway and the surrounding area, the office of the auditor general proposed the creation of a river basin committee, with authority in the different jurisdictions involved and policing powers to prosecute polluters and demand action on the part of the water company. It also recommended providing this new body with stable financial and human resources.

Currently, the “executive committee of the plan for environmental management and administration of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin” lacks both funding and personnel.

After being presented with the report before its public release, the executive committee’s coordinator, Fabián López, said he coincided with “the spirit and orientation” of the conclusions and supported the idea of providing the body with greater authority to act. Local residents also believe that the creation of a committee with the power to take action and exercise control over the basin would the beginning of a lasting solution.

“This is a proposal that enjoys an enormous consensus among environmentalists and residents. Everyone believes that with regard to a basin that encompasses numerous jurisdictions, the best thing is a committee that survives beyond individual governments,” said Alberti.

“This would be the best remedy for our basin, but implies that each jurisdiction will lose power over the companies and local population in its district, and that is where we have come up against major resistance,” he added.

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