The Riachuelo in Buenos Aires
Crédito: Malena Bystrowicz/IPS
Million-Dollar Loan Flows Into Argentine River
Por Marcela Valente
The largest loan for environmental clean-up granted to a Latin American country could serve as a test of Argentina's will to recover the toxic Matanza-Riachuelo watershed.
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 22 (Tierramérica).- Residents and environmentalists are eyeing with cautious optimism a million-dollar loan from the World Bank to the Argentine government to clean up the Matanza-Riachuelo watershed in Buenos Aires province -- the country's most polluted waterway.
"There is a great hunger for the money and little will to change," Alfredo Alberti, of the Association of La Boca Neighbors, told Tierramérica. The group promotes citizen participation and management in efforts to clean up the watershed, which has become an open-air sewer.
The Association is also part of Espacio Matanza-Riachuelo, a network of organizations that monitor compliance with a Supreme Court ruling from July 2008 that ordered the federal government and the companies involved to conduct a definitive clean-up of a 64-kilometer stretch.
The Riachuelo marks the Argentine capital's southern border, and then, with the name Matanza River, crosses 14 municipalities of Buenos Aires province. The watershed is home to 3.5 million people, 40 percent who lack potable water and 60 percent without sanitation services.
Some 5,000 industries dump waste into the watershed, and along its banks there are 13 growing settlements and around a hundred garbage dumps.
The Supreme Court ruling came out of a case filed in 2004 by residents affected by the contamination. The Court convened the Environment and Development Secretariat, the municipal governments and companies involved, and ordered the government to present a clean-up plan.
The Matanza-Riachuelo Watershed Authority (ACUMAR) was born. With representatives from the different jurisdictions affected, its job is to apply the plan under monitoring from the judiciary, the Peoples' Defender (Ombudsman) and non-governmental organizations.
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 disbursement 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, 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, for a government project that promised to clean up the watershed in 1,000 days, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) granted a 250-million-dollar loan, recalled Villalonga.
"One portion was spent on consulting, another was channeled to social plans, and the Riachuelo remained polluted," he said.
The stance of 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," stressed Villalonga.
The notion that there is lack of will 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 favorable. Now there exists an inter-jurisdictional authority, there is more participation from civil society, and oversight from an important party: the judiciary.
"The intervention of the Supreme Court is a fundamental difference. It gives us a sense of tranquility," said Nápoli.
According to Alberti, now also "the citizen organizations are better positioned" to defend the watershed. But even so, "the specter of poor politics threatens us," he said.
"We have a history of diverted or under-executed credits, and we believe that not everything can be done with money. I hope that this time it is different. We don't want 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.