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ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Riachuelo Clean-Up Plan Sparks Hope

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 29 2006 (IPS) - The government of Argentina has unveiled a comprehensive clean-up project for the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin – a waterway whose name is currently synonymous with pollution. The plan envisions an authority with policing power over a resource that winds through several districts in the capital.

Demonstrating their joint commitment to working together, President Néstor Kirchner, province of Buenos Aires Governor Felipe Solá, Buenos Aires Mayor Jorge Telerman, and administrative officials in the basin region presented the legal initiative together on Monday.

“It is now possible to dream of a clean Riachuelo because the president has taken a clear political stance,” said recently appointed Environment Secretary Romina Picolotti, a long-time activist and former president of the non-governmental Centre for Human Rights and Environment.

Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández explained that the plan aims to “end Argentina’s terrible pattern of environmental degradation,” epitomised by the pollution that has poisoned the basin for more than a century, as indicated by lawsuits going back to the early 20th century.

The bill that the government has sent to Congress declares the river’s noxious waters an “environmental emergency” and proposes the creation of a River Basin Authority comprising representatives from the three main jurisdictions involved. The committee would grant the Environment Secretariat policing authority to fine polluters.

The clean-up initiative also contains provisions to step up controls on factories, grant credits for industrial conversion, encourage investment for sewage and drinking water systems, install treatment plants and address issues in the most vulnerable riverbank communities, including possible relocation.

The 64-km Matanza-Riachuelo River runs from western Buenos Aires into the Río de la Plata estuary, cutting across 14 Buenos Aires municipalities.

The area covers more than 2,240 square km, home to some 3.5 million people. More than 3,500 factories, many of which are sources of pollution, operate along the banks of the river, a landscape that also includes13 slums, numerous illegal sewage pipes running directly into the river, and 42 open garbage dumps.

According to official data, 35 percent of residents in the area have no access to potable water and 55 percent lack sewers. A report from the country’s ombudsman’s office described most of the pollution dumped in the river as untreated organic waste.

However, numerous tanneries, oil, chemical and metal plants and meat packing factories operate along the banks. Many of these industries dump their effluents into the river, because until now, a lack of coordinated action among the various levels of government has prevented effective controls.

Argentina’s office of the auditor general concluded in April that the river is “a veritable open sewer” where “the damage to river life is total”. The ombudsman’s office released two reports in the past six years, both sounding alarms about the serious health risks threatening riverside communities.

What finally jumpstarted concrete political action was a recent Supreme Court ruling. In June, the country’s highest court gave authorities in the three jurisdictions 30 days to present a clean-up programme and ordered 44 companies to report on the liquid waste they dump in the river and provide environmental impact studies.

The decision, which came down as part of a pollution lawsuit brought by a group of Riachuelo residents, ordered all parties to participate in a landmark public hearing to come up with solutions for the polluted river. The meeting is scheduled to begin on Sept. 5, and could go on for several days.

In response to the lawsuit, Picolotti, who has just completed the first month in her new post, began assembling projects from the various districts, and last week submitted the proposal to the Supreme Court. And on Monday, it was introduced in Congress.

During the presentation of the bill, Governor Solá underscored the importance of creating a River Basin Authority and investing it with real powers. He also noted that “strong political will” and full cooperation of all parties would be needed to meet the clean-up objectives.

But Solá said the main challenge lies in addressing the needs of communities that live in slums in the lower basin, where the worst environmental degradation is found. “They pollute, because they lack sewer systems, but they are also the main victims of pollution,” he said.

Picolotti said “the people will be the main focus of this plan.”

The plan has met with approval from residents and environmentalists. Alfredo Alberti, of the association of local residents in La Boca, a neighbourhood on the banks of the Riachuelo, told IPS that the proposal’s key point is the creation of a basin committee with enough power to effectively clamp down on pollution.

To varying degrees, most environmental organisations that work on basin issues welcomed the government initiative. Some tempered their optimism with caution. They are waiting for congressional approval of the bill, to see if involved jurisdictions will actually cede power to the new authority.

“The proposal is very much in line with what we have been recommending,” Pedro Del Piero, president of the Fundación Metropolitana, told IPS. “We especially want to stress that it’s very positive that the issue has made it onto the political agenda.”

But he also expressed his concern that the national government is playing too great a role in the solution of this inter-jurisdictional problem, and that initiatives could be dragged down by a lack of participation from municipal actors, those most affected by the pollution and the clean-up proposals.

Andrés Nápoli, of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation, agreed that the creation of a common authority over the Riachuelo is “a step in the right direction” for cleaning up the river, “provided all the authorities in the affected region participate.”

“This natural resource belongs to us all, and if everyone is not well represented, it will be impossible to establish effective controls,” he warned.

Nápoli also noted that the government plan must be subjected to “an in-depth evaluation.” In addition, environmental organisations are calling for a “base-line study” to determine current pollution levels and to provide a reference point to measure the clean-up programme’s progress.

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