If the City of Buenos Aires is Argentina’s beating heart, then the rivers that supply its swelling population are surely the life-giving arteries on which it depends. That is not to say, however, that they have been adequately maintained.
The Río Matanza — or Riachuelo — typifies the capital’s historically indifferent attitude towards these lifelines. It has been neglected and freely contaminated since Argentina gained its hard-fought independence in 1810. Where the river once snaked serenely through the fertile interior of Buenos Aires Province, it now stalks stiff, concrete channels before spilling meekly into the Río de la Plata through the capital’s infamous La Boca barrio. More worryingly, it also brings with it ton upon ton of trash and detritus.
Seven years have now passed since Argentina’s Supreme Court approved the historic ‘Mendoza’ ruling in 2008 (named after lawyer Beatriz Silva Mendoza, who successfully sought damages against the Argentine state); demanding that action be taken against the unchecked stream of pollutants flooding into the Riachuelo. It is still as dirty as ever, and the accord merely represents the latest in a series that have “acknowledged” and then subsequently ignored the problem.
Indeed, as far back as 1917, an agreement between national and regional governors had formally recognized the problem. Seventy years later in 1987, and without any meaningful progress to speak of (rather, the state of the river had worsened significantly), a three-way agreement was struck to eradicate the problem within 20 years, with US $1 billion set aside to tackle the Riachuelo’s contamination.
Former President Carlos Menem promised in 1993 that he would have the river clean within 1,000 days. María Julia Alsogaray, a favorite aide of his, went a step further: “By 1995 [the Riachuelo] will be a place for boat rides, drinking mate, swimming and fishing.” Whether deluded in her assertions or clouded by political ambition, by the time 1995 had arrived, precious little had changed: one was still likely to net an old boot or plastic bottle when casting a fishing line into the murky shallows of the Riachuelo.
Back to the present, then, and an end to the saga could finally be within sight. That is not to say that progress has been uninhibited — the scale of the problem is far greater than had previously been imagined, while legislative checks and organizational inefficiency have made progress slow. There had even been fears that the clean-up operation could have been scrapped altogether — or at least left to stagnate along with the very waters it sought to cleanse — as politicized in-fighting between the national government, the Province of Buenos Aires and the City government threatened the process.
Following months of convoluted planning and disorganization, at a meeting to discuss the issue at the Casa Rosada an exasperated official exclaimed, “The idea is to have just the one boss. Everybody needs to know who makes decisions and who will be responsible for what we are yet to do.”
That said, some 200,000 tons of trash and 70 abandoned boats have so far been hauled from the Riachuelo. More than 2,000 families have been relocated in order to accommodate the works, while a further 1.5 million have been added to the Matanza river basin’s safe drinking water system. Undoubtedly, steps were being made in the right direction.
However, by November last year the whole process had ground to a halt. In February 2016, Amílcar López, head of Acumar — the body appointed to oversee the works, made up of representatives of the national, provincial and city governments — resigned. “There is no plan. We have had just one meeting of the decision-makers and no progress has been made,” read the damning notice announcing his resignation.
Just a couple of months later on June 15, Acumar announced its new estimate: the Riachuelo will now be clean by the year 2023. Any new target, more than 200 years after waste first started to be poured into the river, will of course be treated with a degree of skepticism. For now, it is best to watch developments unfold from afar so as to see what weight — if any — this new deadline holds.
Whether 2023 is the year for “boat rides, drinking mate, swimming and fishing” on the Riachuelo or not — as was predicted 30 years previously — the end to this lamentable chapter in Argentina’s environmental history cannot come soon enough.