Polluted Rivers: Argentina’s Matanza-Riachuelo River
Today let’s travel to Argentina and take a look at the heavily polluted Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin. This river (it’s actually more of an estuary), which meanders for 40 miles through Buenos Aires, has been heavily polluted for years by industrial waste, sewage, and everyday garbage. For the seven million people that live near or along the river that means dirty water, dirty air, and a number of health problems.
The pollution in this river is not new for Argentina. For almost 200 years the government has struggled with keeping the river clean. In the past the Matanza-Riachuelo was the point of entry for foreign commerce, and now houses thousands of industrial buildings along its banks, with 25% of its gross domestic product (GDP) coming out of this area. According to a report from the executive committee for the environmental management plan and administration of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin, an average of 82,000 cubic meters of industrial waste enters the river daily.
About a third of the pollution being dumped in the river comes from chemical, pharmaceutical, or petrochemical plants along the river. 8.3 tons of oil is spilled into the river every day from large petroleum units. Elevated levels of lead, mercury, zinc, cadmium, copper, magnesium, and nickel have a constant presence in these waters. 21% of the pollution comes from the meat, tannery, and dairy industry dumping blood, internal organs, and skin into the river. This practice often gives the river a dark color, and is where the name Matanza-Riachuelo, which translates to “slaughter-brook”, comes from. The food and beverage industry contribute 14% of the pollution, paper mills and the textile industry contribute 11%, while metallurgic, the process of extracting metals from their ore, makes up 7%. The rest is a combination of urban waste, pesticides, sewage, and anything else that someone can find to throw into the river.
As is usually the case with people forced to live in a polluted environment, the children are the ones that are suffering the worse. A study by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Argentina found that the level of lead and chrome in the children living around the river was five times normal levels. Exposure to lead can cause headaches, stomach pains, behavioral problems, anemia, it can effect a child’s brain development, decreased bone and muscle growth, damage to the nervous system, kidneys and hearing, and cause speech and language problems. The list of health impacts from chrome are no better, including rashes, ulcers, problems with the respiratory system and immune system, kidney/liver problems, and lung cancer. The study also found that child mortality is twice what it is in other areas of Buenos Aires.
In the area known as Villa Inflamable 50% of children have lead in their blood, and many had chrome, toluene, benzene in their urine. Benzene can cause anemia, impact the immune system, and can cause cancer. By the way, the name Villa Inflamable comes from the fact that apparently if you drop a match on the ground it will ignite the ground, something locals say was caused by pollution from the Shell refinery and petrochemical plants nearby.
I should note that another form of pollution comes from raw sewage. Hundreds of gallons of raw sewage are dumped into the river every day by people living along the shore. 35% of the population does not have safe drinking water, and 55% do not have access to the sewer system. This seems like more of a problem of education and will than anything. People don’t have sanitation facilities, and so they dump into the river because they don’t know any better. Also, because of the state of the river, and the fact that no one is doing anything about it (government) the people see no hope, and therefore don’t think twice about dumping into the river.
So what is the government doing about the pollution? Until recently they haven’t done much. In 2004 Argentina received $250 million US from the Inter-America Development Bank, and matched that amount bringing the total to $500 million. This money was to be used to clean up the river basin, but most of it was used elsewhere in the country (only $1 million was used towards clean up, and charges were pressed for misappropriation of funds). In 2005 the environmental minister said that “In a thousand days we are going to be able to drink the water and I am going to be the first to drink it.” However, nothing ever happened. Then in 2006 Argentina’s Supreme Court gave the government 30 days to make a plan to improve conditions, and required 44 factories to present environmental impact assessments of the waste being dumped into the river. Since then a lot of the factories have been shut down for failing to comply with discharge standards.
Real change started when 17 people living in the area sued the federal government and several industries for damages to their health in a cased known as the “Mendoza Case”. The ruling in favor of the 17 people was handed down by the Supreme Court in 2008 with the Supreme Court holding the federal government, the city of Buenos Aires, and the province of Buenos Aires all separately responsible for the “prevention and reparation of Environmental Damages existing in the Watershed.” Since this ruling crews frequently go out and clean up the shorelines and plant new grasses and trees. River forklifts collect garbage from the surface of the water and place it on the bank where it is collected by waiting trucks. But this is where the positive changes stop.
The court has named the Matanza-Riachuelo a ‘Use 4” waterway, which basically means that if the river looks and smells ok then they’re not going to do anything about it. There is also disagreement within political blocs about what to do with the polluters. The dilemma is if they fine or close down a factory then people lose jobs, the government loses money, and the economy slumps.
So what is the solution to this problem? I don’t know but this is my best guess. I think it has two parts. One is educating the public on proper waste disposal, and then following that with sanitation and drinking water facilities. That, while very difficult, is probably the easier of the two. The second part is getting industry to clean up its act. This takes government will, a very good plan, and a lot of money. The plan would need to address wastewater treatment/management, what to do with other industrial waste, air pollution controls, monitoring of water and air, and a number of other things.
Change isn’t going to come on its own. Pressure on the government from the public as well as NGOs like Greenpeace need to continue because the only way real change is going to happen is if the government makes it a priority, something they haven’t done in the past, and something they seem reluctant to do in the present.
I read a quote from a resident living along the river that I thought really sums up the pollution in this river and what it means to the people: “Every river is a source of life but this river is a synonym for death”. Hopefully something will change for these people soon. Thanks for reading.