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

ENVIRONMENT: Competing for Top Prize as Argentina’s Filthiest River

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 11 2007 (IPS) - The Riachuelo, a river that runs through the southern part of the Argentine capital, is the dirtiest river in the country and one of the most polluted in the world. But a new scientific study shows that the Reconquista, which borders the city to the northwest, is giving it a run for its money.

“It’s another dead river, another open sewer full of garbage, sewage effluents and industrial waste,” said national Ombudsman Eduardo Mondino at the presentation of the Special Report on the Reconquista River Basin, carried out by experts from three public universities, one private college, and environmental organisations.

The Reconquista River emerges 60 km west of Buenos Aires, and runs 82 km until mingling with the waters of the Luján River in the Paraná Delta. The Paraná River flows into the Río de la Plata, the world’s widest estuary, which separates Argentina and Uruguay.

The Reconquista runs through 18 different outlying districts of Greater Buenos Aires, affecting the lives of more than four million people.

According to the study, which was prompted by complaints by local residents, 40 percent of people living in the shantytowns and poor neighbourhoods that line the river have no piped water and 60 percent have no sanitation.

But in some neighbourhoods, the situation is even more critical. In Malvinas Argentinas, which is home to 280,000 people, 91 percent of local residents lack drinking water and 96 percent lack sanitation services.


Some 12,000 factories line the Reconquista, into which they dump their untreated waste. That is nearly four times the number of companies that pollute the Riachuelo.

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

In a 2001 report on the Riachuelo, the national ombudsman’s office described the “alarming state” of the river and the health risks faced by the 3.5 million people living in the neighbourhoods in the river basin.

The results of that report were echoed four years later by a study by the office of the auditor general.

Based on these elements, the Supreme Court handed down an unprecedented ruling, in a lawsuit brought by a group of Riachuelo residents. In June 2006, the Court gave national, provincial and municipal authorities 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 also ordered all parties, including civil society groups, to participate in a landmark public hearing to come up with solutions for the polluted river. In addition, it forced the government of President Néstor Kirchner and parliament to make faster progress towards the creation of a River Basin Authority made up of delegates from all three levels of government – municipal, provincial and national.

Furthermore, regulations on industrial and domestic effluents were unified, and a plan began to be implemented to bring piped water to households in the neighbourhoods along the river.

People living near the Reconquista River are hoping for a similar ruling in their case. By means of the Special Report on the Reconquista River Basin and a lawsuit filed by environmental organisations, local residents hope the case will make it all the way up to the Supreme Court.

“The report is very solid and gives us a strong scientific basis for legal action,” Martín Nunziata, an activist with the Aprodelta environmental organisation, told IPS.

“The situation here is identical to what we see in the Riachuelo, and the waters also run into the Río de la Plata estuary,” noted Nunziata, who lives in the delta.

Ironically, although the two most polluted rivers in Argentina are the Riachuelo and Reconquista, the highest-profile activism in defence of a river is being waged by people from the town of Gualeguaychú in the eastern province of Entre Ríos, whose struggle is credited by activists around the country for putting ecological questions on the table and forcing the authorities to take a stance.

For the past two years, the people of Gualeguaychú have been protesting construction of a paper pulp mill on the Uruguayan side of a river that forms part of the border between Uruguay and Argentina.

Although the plant, which is being built by Botnia from Finland, is located 25 km from Gualeguaychú and will use the latest technology to prevent pollution of the Uruguay River – unlike the factories that dump untreated waste into the Riachuelo and Reconquista Rivers – local residents in the town have blocked international bridges between the two countries during the last three summer tourism seasons.

The Reconquista River study by the ombudsman’s office, which was drawn up by experts from the universities of Morón, Luján and General Sarmiento, is aimed at “generating a new kind of public response” coordinated by the state and civil society, based on a broader vision of the problem that would contribute to coming up with sustainable solutions.

According to the report, the concentrations of heavy metals in the Reconquista River far exceed safe levels, ranging from two to 160 times the acceptable limits, depending on the metal, “which indicates a high level of pollution from industrial effluents.”

The report also notes that “highly toxic” agrochemicals were found in the water at levels that were 40 to 400 times higher than the limits tolerable for aquatic life.

There is also a “high quantity” of chlorides, phosphates, phenols, inorganic nitrogen compounds and coliform bacteria, which come from the raw sewage and untreated industrial waste dumped into the river.

At the mouth of the river, the pollution is so severe that the experts found a total lack of oxygen.

The authors of the report said the toxic substances found in the water samples can cause headaches, skin ailments, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypertension, cardiac problems and cancer.

“There is no doubt that there is a potentially adverse environmental health impact,” conclude the authors after an in-depth evaluation of that aspect of the problem.

Environmental health was precisely the facet that had the strongest impact on the Supreme Court justices when they decided to take a hand in the case of the Riachuelo River.

The most heavily polluting industries along the Reconquista River are tanneries, meat-packing plants, and chemical and agrochemical factories distributed throughout the 1,600-square-kilometre river basin, that discharge 90 percent of their effluents without any treatment into the river, which has a terrible stench, said Mondino.

The Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers brought legal action last year against the federal state and the province of Buenos Aires, to hold them accountable for the state of the river and demand an immediate halt to polluting activities.

The lawyers, who represent local residents, have urged the Supreme Court to take action, just as it did in the case of the Riachuelo, to force the authorities to clean up the river.

In the 1990s, the government of the province of Buenos Aires, through its Secretariat of Environmental Policy, created a Unit for the Coordination of the Reconquista River Project. But the unit has only carried out works of infrastructure, and has no environmental policy, said Mondino.

One of the unit’s main infrastructure projects was the construction of a relief channel to ease the impact of floods on people living on the banks of the Reconquista River and the delta. But since then, at every high tide, the artificial channel distributes pollution from the Reconquista throughout the waters of the delta.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) financed the construction of the relief channel, which cost nearly 400 million dollars. But the plan was also supposed to include sanitation and clean-up works along the Reconquista River, which were never carried out, said Nunziata.

In the Special Report on the Reconquista River Basin, both the Secretariat of Environmental Policy and the Unit for the Coordination of the Reconquista River Project acknowledged the gravity of the problem.

“The water quality is not fit for aquatic life,” admitted the Secretariat, referring to the Reconquista, while the coordination unit said the water is “totally degraded by the massive dumping by industries.”

Nevertheless, they said clean-up plans are being carried out, whose effects can be evaluated once the works are completed – in 20 years.

 
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