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It Takes More than Two to Tango – or to Clean up Argentina’s Riachuelo River

A young man looks out at the La Boca transporter bridge, built in 1914, which stopped operating in 1960. This emblem of the Riachuelo river in Buenos Aires is being rebuilt as part of the clean-up of the river basin and is scheduled to begin working again in 2015. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 13 2014 (IPS) - Immortalised by a famous tango, the “Niebla del riachuelo” (Mist over the Riachuelo river) has begun to dissipate over Argentina’s most polluted river, much of which is lined by factories and slums. But two centuries of neglect and a complex web of political and economic interests are hindering a clean-up plan that requires a broad, concerted effort.

The 64-km Matanzas-Riachuelo river cuts across 14 Buenos Aires municipalities as it runs from the western Buenos Aires working-class suburb of La Matanza to the picturesque, lively neighbourhood of La Boca, where it flows into the Río de la Plata or River Plate.

In the 1937 tango by Enrique Cadícamo and Juan Carlos Cobián the river is described as “a murky anchorage where boats end up moored at the pier, destined to stay there forever”. But far removed from the poetic license of a tango, for two centuries the riachuelo was actually a foul-smelling dump for untreated sewage and industrial waste.

Now, thanks to the Integral Environmental Clean-up Plan approved in 2011, the situation has changed in the river known as Matanza at its source and Riachuelo where it runs into the Rio de la Plata.

“The mist is gone….because it had to do with the water pollution…so poor Cadícamo wouldn’t be able to write Mist over the Riachuelo river today,” Antolín Magallanes, executive vice president of the Matanza Riachuelo River Basin Authority (ACUMAR), told Tierramérica.

ACUMAR, made up of representatives of the national, provincial and Buenos Aires city governments and of the 14 municipalities crossed by the river, was ordered by the Supreme Court to clean up the river in 2006.

“In 30 years of democracy, the creation of ACUMAR [in 2006] was an enormous and historic stride forward, because it made it possible for the first time for three jurisdictions, including governments of different political stripes, to coordinate the management [of the river] and for civil society to oversee it,” Magallanes said.

“That is part of the clean-up. It’s not just the garbage that’s in the river, which reflects the failure of the different parts to join forces in the past,” he added.

An industrial area along the Riachuelo, with the port in the background, in Buenos Aires. Since the first factories were built along the banks in 1801, industrial waste has been dumped into the river. There are now 15,000 factories, of which 459 were reconverted to prevent them from polluting, while another 1,300 are in the process of doing the same. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

An industrial area along the Riachuelo, with the port in the background, in Buenos Aires. Since the first factories were built along the banks in 1801, industrial waste has been dumped into the river. There are now 15,000 factories, of which 459 were reconverted to prevent them from polluting, while another 1,300 are in the process of doing the same. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

More than five million people – of the 15.5 million inhabitants of Greater Buenos Aires – live in the basin, 10 percent of them in shantytowns. Of that proportion, 35 percent have no running water and 55 percent have no sewer services.

As part of the clean-up plan, some 60 sunken ships were removed from the river, which the tango describes as a “grim cemetery of boats which, when they die, dream nevertheless that to the sea they are bound to go.”

Around 1,500 tons of solid waste was also removed from the river and its banks, and the wide towpaths along the river were reopened and paved to provide access to and control over the river.

In addition, 1.5 million people were incorporated in the water supply network, health assessments are currently being carried out in high-risk areas, and 14 health centres are under construction.

“We are doing something that didn’t exist before: an environmental health diagnosis specific to the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, which will offer new results,” Magallanes said.

But the non-governmental Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN) said that “although what has been done was necessary, it falls far short in relation to the pending tasks.”

“Structurally very little was done,” the president of the independent Metropolitan Foundation, Pedro Del Piero, told Tierramérica. “Sanitation works have begun, with delays, to keep the Riachuelo from being an open-air sewer.”

The project has begun to go beyond the planning stage, thanks to 840 million dollars in financing from the World Bank.

A large waste water pipe will be built on the left bank of the Riachuelo to move the sewage to different treatment plants, to keep it from being dumped directly into the river. And a huge 11.5-km underground pipe will be installed to carry treated wastewater to the Rio de la Plata.

“That will make possible uses that have up to now been inconceivable, such as boat rides on the river and other recreational activities,” said World Bank official Daniel Mira-Salama.

Andrés Nápoli, director of FARN, is also calling for stricter controls of industrial pollution, along with a change in the current “extremely lax” legislation.

Environmental watchdog Greenpeace reported in June that there had been no improvement in the quality of the water, which still had only 0.5 mg of oxygen per litre, when the bare minimum to make aquatic life possible is 5.0 mg.

A 2008 study published in the Latin American Journal of Sedimentology and Basin Analysis found that soil on the banks of the river contained high levels of zinc, lead, copper, nickel and total chromium. But Magallanes wrote off the report as being based on “old” statistics.

Of a total of 15,000 factories officially registered in the river basin, 459 have been reconverted to stop polluting and another 1,300 – including the biggest polluters – are in the process of doing so.

“There is a high level of tension,” Magallanes admitted, adding that the basin “is kind of a metaphor for Argentina.”

The Riachuelo was at the centre of “the conquest, development and industrial revolution” in this country, and of the 2002-2003 economic crisis, which forced a number of factories to close down, driving up unemployment, he pointed out.

“That means there are many deeply rooted ways of doing things that must be changed, and awareness has to be raised among the companies,” he said.

Nápoli blamed the slow pace of change on “the huge web of political and economic interests in Buenos Aires,” aggravated by “political bickering” between the government of President Cristina Fernández and the opposition, which governs the capital.

ACUMAR “is constantly at the mercy of the political vicissitudes of the federal officials of the day,” Del Piero concurred.

But Magallanes said these were difficulties that were normal in democracy.

“In the past every jurisdiction did its cleaning up, had its little environmental manual, or didn’t do anything,” he argued.

ACUMAR relocated 122 families from high-risk zones, and is building over 1,900 housing units. It has also made headway with another 1,600 projects.

But Nápoli said it is not enough. “There are vulnerable people living along the banks of streams, or next to polluting industries. Six years after the Supreme Court ruling we still don’t know exactly who are at risk.”

He also called for the urgent removal or closure of open air dumps of varying sizes. Of the 186 dumps shut down in the basin, 70 percent are being used again, said Nápoli, who believes the origin of the problem dates back to a decision to put garbage disposal in the hands of municipal governments.

To solve the problem, ACUMAR is building municipal urban solid waste treatment plants.

“By clearing the mist off the river once and for all, we’re moving down a very positive path. From tension to transformation,” Magallanes said.

“Obviously there is still a great deal to be done,” he added. “But now we’re all finally talking about the river. That’s a good thing. It’s part of the recovery.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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