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ARGENTINA: Huge Loan to Flow into ‘Open Sewer’ River

Marcela Valente* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 24 2009 (IPS) - Local residents and environmentalists are eyeing with cautious optimism a major loan from the World Bank to the Argentine government to clean up the Matanza-Riachuelo river that runs through Buenos Aires – the country’s most polluted waterway.

The Riachuelo in Buenos Aires.  Credit: Malena Bystrowicz/IPS

The Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. Credit: Malena Bystrowicz/IPS

“There is a great hunger for the money and little will to change,” Alfredo Alberti, of the La Boca Residents Association, told Tierramérica. The group promotes citizen participation and management in efforts to clean up the watershed, which has become an open sewer.

The Association forms part of the Espacio Matanza-Riachuelo, a network of organisations that monitor compliance with a July 2008 Supreme Court ruling that ordered the federal government and the companies along the river to clean it up.

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 watershed is home to some 3.5 million people, 40 percent of whom lack potable water and 60 percent of whom lack sewage services.

Some 5,000 factories dump their waste into the river, and 13 slums and around 100 open-air garbage dumps are located along its banks, while a large number of clandestine sewage pipes pour liquid waste directly into the river.

The Supreme Court ruling was handed down in a case filed in 2004 by residents of neighbourhoods affected by the pollution. The Court called together the Environment and Development Secretariat and the municipal governments and companies involved, and ordered the authorities to present a clean-up plan.

The Matanza-Riachuelo Watershed Authority (ACUMAR) was born. With the participation of representatives of the 14 municipalities along the river and delegates from all three levels of government – municipal, provincial and national – its job is to implement the plan under oversight by the judiciary, the ombudsman’s office and non-governmental organisations.

The clean-up has a price tag of 1.48 billion dollars. The federal government pledged 644 million, and another 840 million came from the World Bank this month in a 30-year loan with a five-year grace period.

It is the largest environmental clean-up loan to a Latin American country, according to Bank authorities, and targets “Argentina’s most visible environmental problem,” with the purpose of “improving the water quality of the watershed in 15 or 20 years.”

The money is earmarked for water distribution, sewer services, treatment plants and pumping station projects (694 million dollars). A large portion of the rest – some 148 million dollars – will go to reconverting industries for cleaner production, regulation of the watershed territory and beefing up monitoring and controls.

But citizen groups argue that the money in the hands of the government does not guarantee compliance with the plan.

“What has been missing so far is not money. Each time financing was sought for cleaning up the Riachuelo it was obtained. The problem is whether or not it is spent in a rational and coherent way,” Juan Carlos Villalonga, of Greenpeace Argentina, told Tierramérica.

In the 1990s the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) granted a 250 million dollar loan for a government project that promised to clean up the watershed in 1,000 days, recalled Villalonga.

“One portion was spent on consulting, another was channelled into social plans, and the Riachuelo remained polluted,” he said.

The position taken by Greenpeace – also a member of the “Espacio” network – is that there is no reason to believe this new loan will jump-start the effort. “The problem has always been the lack of political will,” Villalonga argued.

That view is shared by Andrés Nápoli, of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), another member of the network.

“It’s good news that the government is receiving resources for these projects, but it will have to greatly improve management so that the money is applied as it should be. There is the IDB precedent, a loan that cost more than 30 million dollars in interest and 10 million dollars in punitives,” he told Tierramérica.

Nevertheless, the activists agreed that the current context is more favourable. There is now an inter-jurisdictional authority, greater participation by civil society, and judicial oversight.

“The intervention of the Supreme Court is a fundamental difference. It gives us a great deal of assurance,” said Nápoli.

According to Alberti, “the citizen organisations are also better positioned now” to defend the watershed. But even so, “the spectre of bad politics threatens us,” he said.

“There is a history of diverted or under-executed credits, and we believe that not everything can be done with money. I hope that this time things are different; it is not our aim to be doomsayers,” he added.

Alberti pointed out that in recent months a dozen sunken boats in the Riachuelo had been removed.

However, when it comes to reducing toxic runoff, “that is where it is most apparent that the problem is not money but lack of regulation. If that doesn’t change, the loan will not be an investment, but rather an added expense,” he said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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