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ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Black Waters in the Tigre Delta

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 8 2006 (IPS) - Only 28 kilometres from the Argentine capital, the unique landscape of the Tigre Delta unfolds before the visitor’s eyes: a varied labyrinth of rivers and islands at the mouth of the Paraná River where it flows into the River Plate.

This area, which shelters a wealth of biodiversity and is dotted with picturesque houses built on stilts, suffers from a high degree of pollution, which the islanders have been protesting unsuccessfully for at least 20 years.

But now, because of the repercussions of protests by residents of the northeastern province of Entre Ríos against the installation of two paper pulp mills on the Uruguayan side of a river shared by the two countries, the voices of the people of the Tigre Delta are beginning to be heard in the centres of power.

As in the case of those affected by severe pollution in the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin, which cuts across the city of Buenos Aires, residents’ organisations in mainland Tigre and the neighbouring islands were never listened to before. Now, however, the Secretariat for Environmental Policy of the Province of Buenos Aires, which has jurisdiction, is considering their demands.

The mouth of the Paraná River forms a large delta, covering an area of 14,000 square kilometres. This system of rivers and streams is a wetland that absorbs and moderates the tidal waters of the River Plate (Río de la Plata). The people who live on the islands in the delta have an intimate knowledge of the ecosystem, and are not afraid of the floods.

The Paraná delta is formed by sediment deposits from the River Plate, the muddy estuary of the Paraná and Uruguay Rivers, which forms part of the border between Argentina and Uruguay.

The Paraná River itself is divided into upper, middle and lower sections; the lower Paraná begins as it enters the province of Entre Ríos, after which it flows through the northern part of the province of Buenos Aires, and ends in the Tigre Delta.

Sediments are deposited at the rate of 200 million tons a year, causing the delta to grow by 70 to 90 square metres every year.

“When flooding occurs, it’s the riverbank residents who are evacuated, never the islanders, because we islanders have adapted to the delta. We build our houses high up and we know that the rising waters are part of nature,” islander Martín Nunziata, the president of the non-governmental organisation AproDelta, told IPS.

Life for the islanders is intimately bound up with nature. For transport, they use their own craft, or larger boats for collective, public use. When the waters start rising, showing floods are on the way, they already have their stores of food and other necessaries and are able to face isolation for hours or even days.

They do not look on the floods as a tragedy, but simply as a part of their lives.

The problem arises because the Paraná delta is fed by other rivers, among them the Reconquista – the second most contaminated river in Argentina after the Matanza-Riachuelo, which is already in a state of environmental emergency.

The Reconquista is a stretch of water that enters from the south and flows into the Tigre Delta.

Along the banks of the Reconquista, which traverses 18 municipalities of the province of Buenos Aires, there are some 12,000 industrial factories that dump untreated waste into the river. In addition, the area lacks access to the sanitary drainage system, so the river has basically become a highly toxic open sewer.

A decade ago, in order to ease the impact of the floods on people living on the banks of the Reconquista River and the Tigre Delta, the authorities dug a “relief channel” between them. Since then, at every high tide, the artificial channel distributes pollution from the Reconquista throughout the waters of the delta.

“I live on the Carapachay River, and when the overflow water comes from the Reconquista, the river turns black and you can see dead fish floating in it, or surviving fish rising to the surface for oxygen,” Nunziata said. In contrast, when the waters abate and the river is fed by the Paraná, the situation improves. “What has to be done is to clean up the Reconquista River,” the islander concluded.

In February, a group of residents protested about the “pollution and mass death of fish” in three rivers, one stream and at the outflow of the relief channel. Immediately, the Secretariat for Environmental Policy ordered an investigation which included an inspection of the Paraná delta and collection of water samples for analysis.

When the report came out in April, it confirmed the complaints and incorporated the proposed solutions put forward by residents and environmentalists. The experts reported that they found floating garbage heaps, nauseating odours, dying fish gasping at the surface and dark-coloured water in many places.

The lab tests confirmed that the water samples taken from the relief channel, which connects with the Reconquista, and those taken from the Tigre Delta, downstream from the relief channel, had “high concentrations” of heavy metals, ammonium, nitrites, sulphates, hydrocarbons and faecal bacteria, among other contaminants.

“The point is that there were 400 million dollars in international loans for engineering works to control the flooding and to clean up the river, but previous governments only carried out the first and not the second,” Nunziata explained. That is why the new relief channel spreads the pollution throughout the delta.

“We warned them at the time that without a clean-up operation, all the work would be in vain, because the rivers would continue to be polluted. But there was neither the political will nor the capacity to carry on the work, or to inspect and close factories that fail to comply with the standards,” the activist complained.

Among the proposals the Secretariat for Environmental Policy has now taken up is the creation of a Committee for the Reconquista River Basin, which was planned but never came to fruition, and a programme through which each municipality involved takes responsibility for the treatment or final disposal of waste products.

The authorities also accepted the demand that government experts, environmentalists and residents’ organisations should be represented actively on the Committee, and the request that a containment wall be built across the relief channel at its Reconquista River end, to fulfil the initial aim of alleviating flooding, without spreading pollution.

The officials emphasised that the residents are asking for the promised drainage works and pollution control in the Reconquista basin to be carried out, especially the building of four industrial effluent treatment plants that have been in the planning stage for over a decade.

“It is clear that the Reconquista Basin is oversaturated with inadequately treated sewage and industrial waste to an extent far beyond its natural capacity for self-regeneration,” the Buenos Aires government study acknowledged. It recommended that the river should be declared an “environmental emergency,” like the Matanza-Riachuelo.

Finally, the report stresses the importance of cleaning up the river basins that flow into the River Plate, which provides drinking water for 14 million people in the most densely populated part of Argentina.

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