South America: Coming Together to Preserve the La Plata Basin

 (IPS) – Five South American countries have launched a joint sustainable management programme for the Río de la Plata basin, to preserve one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world.

Presidents Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and José Mujica of Uruguay “are making strong efforts for progress, which have allowed the programme to move forwards,” Argentine ambassador Mónica Troadello, a political representative on the Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee of La Plata Basin Countries (CIC), told IPS.

Troadello said that whereas formerly it was customary to call in external consultants to study the potential of the resources, nowadays it is technicians from each country’s own foreign ministry who are doing this work, with a regional vision.

The new vision also extends to the concept of development. “For decades, development was taken to mean economic productivity, but now the main issue for us is human development,” she emphasised.

From this viewpoint, she said, the governments have become aware of the importance of the basin’s resources, which include the vast underground Guaraní aquifer, as well as the surface water of its rivers and lakes.

The La Plata basin, which extends over a surface area of 3.1 million square kilometres in five countries, is one of the world’s five largest river basins, and the second largest in South America after the Amazon basin, yet is far more densely populated and productive than the Amazon region.

The La Plata basin is home to 100 million people and accounts for 70 percent of the GDP of the five countries involved. Some of the principal cities of Latin America, including Asunción, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Sâo Paulo, are located in the basin.

The headwaters of the river system rise in the Pantanal, an immense wetland in Brazil, and flow into the La Plata river, an estuary that bathes the shores of Argentina and Uruguay before merging with the Atlantic ocean. The Paraná, Paraguay and Uruguay rivers and their tributaries are included in the system, which has 150 dams, three of them large binational hydroelectric complexes.

The basin contains biodiversity-rich ecosystems like the Gran Chaco, an immense dry forest area in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia; the humid pampas, Paraná delta and marshes of the northeast in Argentina; and in Brazil, the Pantanal, the Cerrado – a vast savannah in the centre of the country – and the tropical Atlantic forest spread over 17 Brazilian states.

Hence the need for a regional approach to the basin, and joint protection of its resources in the light of new challenges such as climate change, water shortage, deforestation, overfishing and pollution by agricultural chemicals.

“We celebrate initiatives which approach the basin as one great integrated system where environmental sustainability is the basis of economic, social and political sustainability,” Jorge Cappato of the Proteger (Protect) Foundation told IPS about its work on the water, wetlands and fishing in the Paraná river.

Cappato pointed out that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) classified the Rio de la Plata basin as one of the three most threatened river systems on the planet.

“The basin is experiencing one of the greatest productive growth rates in the world. But the spread of monoculture, deforestation and the building of dams are severe threats,” he said.

“If natural resources are not protected, they end up being consumed, with interest, and the result is vulnerability and costs that cannot be paid,” he said.

The joint management programme, formally launched in October, provides for a range of combined measures for assessing the state of the basin, and possible actions that should be undertaken by each country for the preservation of shared resources.

“In the last year-and-a-half, agreement between the countries has been so great that there has been extraordinary progress in work on the basin,” said CIC’s Troadello.

The multilateral coordinating committee was created in 1967, and two years later the Treaty of La Plata Basin was signed, which strengthened its institutional foundations.

Through the Treaty, progress was made especially in the physical integration of the states party to the agreement, and in large infrastructure works utilising natural resources, but without much awareness of the environmental impact of these works.

Later the CIC went through a period of diminished influence and shortage of funding, Troadello said. But now, “there is agreement between the countries and work has begun on a framework programme,” she said.

The goal is to monitor the La Plata basin, assess its water balance, identify the main challenges faced by the region and design concrete work strategies for integrated management of its resources from 2015.

“The global trend is towards multidisciplinary observatories that detect problems, for instance an increase in average temperature, and on the basis of this information actions are proposed,” she said.

“We have six percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of its water resources, while for countries like China the situation is the reverse,” she said.

Troadello, who was born in the western Argentine province of Mendoza, a dry region dependent on meltwater from the Andes mountains, pointed out the wealth of the La Plata river system by comparing their respective water flow rates.

In Mendoza, the average water flow rate is 50 cubic metres per second, while in the Plata basin the average is 22,000 cubic metres per second. “Its volume is immense, and it has an extraordinary recovery capacity,” she said.

“If we manage to make links between the La Plata river system and the Amazon basin, the future of South America will be extremely interesting,” said Troadello.