November 21, 2017
Sunday, July 13, 2014

NGOs warn slow progress in the Riachuelo

The river banks and the water surface have been cleaned and now the image of a river littered by floating garbage and industrial waste has been left in the past.
By Fermín Koop
Herald Staff
Six years after Supreme Court ruling, key works remain pending in the river

Six years have passed since the Supreme Court issued a ruling forcing the federal government and the Buenos Aires province and City to start cleaning the Riachuelo, one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Despite some progress, it has been far from sufficient, with experts warning about unacceptable delays in moving the people who live near the river and on implementing key works, while also emphasizing that harsher controls are needed.

One thing is for certain: in these past six years since the 2008 ruling came down, the postcard has changed. The images of a river littered by floating garbage and industrial waste have largely been left in the past as more than 1,500 tons of waste located in the water surface and in the margin of the river have been removed along with more than 60 abandoned ships. At the same time, landfills were closed, more than 2,000 people were relocated and some polluting industries were shut down.

“Waste has been removed and people have started to be relocated. But if that is not followed by infrastructure plans and industries don’t change the way they operate, the river will remain in the same condition,” Andrés Nápoli, head of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), told the Herald

Even though the money has been granted to build public works that would prevent sewage from being disposed into the river, they have yet to be built. And there is also a general lack of oversight that prevents any progress from lasting very long.

The Riachuelo’s waters still have a medium to high level of pollution, Greenpeace said last month in a report based on data provided by ACUMAR, the government agency charged with managing the cleaning process. Of 45 monitoring points analyzed, 33 remained with a medium level of pollution and two worsened and went from medium to high.

“There are no improvements that last for long. There are periods where we see the water is cleaner but then it worsens again,” Lorena Pujó, coordinator of the campaign against pollution of Greenpeace, told the Herald. “Harsher regulations are needed to control industrial spills. With the current low standards, the Riachuelo will continue to be polluted.”

Pending relocation

As part of the plan established by ACUMAR, the people living on the river bank have to be relocated because of the many health risks involved in living so close to the polluted waters. There is still a long way to go. Of the total 17,700 houses to be relocated, only 2,100 have been moved elsewhere.

But these continuing challenges get little attention.

“The Riachuelo is still an open sewer and there are still numerous landfills,” Barbara Rossen, under-secretary of urban and environmental rights at the Buenos Aires City ombudsman office, told the Herald. “It’s an issue that should be on everybody’s agenda but it’s not.”

Head of the Buenos Aires City Environmental Agency Juan Carlos Villalonga admits delays on moving the people that live on the river banks, as the figures of the ombudsman show, but point his finger at the Supreme Court for establishing deadlines that are impossible to fulfill. At the same time, he questions ACUMAR’s role and says the city does not owe any money, as Jorge Calzoni, the head of Acumar, claims (see article below).

“We owe nothing to ACUMAR, it’s not there’s a debt,” Villalonga told the Herald. “They are not efficient at bringing all jurisdictions together to solve the problem.”

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