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Long-term commitment through Basin Authorities

Ana Di Pangracio | 26 March 2013

Water partnerships should be locally regulated through specific Basin Authorities, providing equal access for the inhabitants, based on long-term commitment from policymakers. 

Water partnerships should be regulated through specific Basin Authorities that allow joint and coordinated work among the different jurisdictions involved. The Tisza River Basin demonstrates the potential of successful coordinated river basins, stressing the need to develop long-term commitment in South America.

Local ownership and commitment

Regulating water through Basin Authorities should, of course, take account of local specificities. Directly copying institutional models is seldom effective. Such processes should be participatory, involving not only governmental authorities but also academia, civil society organizations, indigenous and local communities, and ordinary citizens. Establishing such institutional arrangements is a “learning by doing” process so there must be enough flexibility to make adjustments and to adapt to changing conditions. These Basin Authorities also demand a fierce commitment from those involved and political will, regardless of the party in power. This has been a big challenge in my country, Argentina, where long-term public policies are non-existent and environmental and water issues are no exception. The environmental crises being experienced by various basins demand rapid and concrete action and civil society organizations have proved to be of great importance when demanding interjurisdictional work spaces like basin authorities. 

The Matanza-Riachuelo Basin

The Matanza-Riachuelo Basin, the most polluted basin in Argentina and one of the thirty most degraded basins in the world, is a 64-kilometer stream in Argentina that originates in the suburbs of Buenos Aires province and defines the southern boundary of Buenos Aires federal district, flowing into the De la Plata River. According to the 2010 National Census, there are over 6 million people inhabiting the basin (15.23% of the country´s total population). The hydrographical scheme of the basin determines the responsibility of the National Government, the Provincial Government (Buenos Aires) of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and fourteen municipalities located in the southern suburbs of the province of Buenos Aires. Among the main sources of pollution are sewerage and industrial waste discharged in large amounts and without appropriate treatment, exceeding the ecosystem’s natural capacity to absorb and treat waste. These deficiencies impact on thousands of inhabitants´ health and life quality; in particular, those most vulnerable social groups that lack basic services such as drinking water, sewerage disposal, pluvial drainage, health services and decent housing. This shows the social dimension of the problem and the crisis state of the basin. 

The pollution lawsuit

The Matanza-Riachuelo Basin has become a sad symbol of pollution and neglect in the country. FARN (Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) has been working towards its rehabilitation and cleaning-up with the goal to contribute to long-term environmental public policies, responsible productive initiatives and greater citizen participation aimed at a new paradigm of sustainable development. 

In 2002 a group of neighbors in La Boca – a neighborhood located in Buenos Aires downtown- went to the headquarters of the National Ombudsman and requested its intervention to address the serious pollution of the basin. From there on, an interdisciplinary project involving neighbors, civil society organizations, educational institutions and authorities began. The result was two reports, published under the title "Matanza-Riachuelo, a basin in crisis" elaborated jointly by the National Ombudsman , the Ombudsman of the City of Buenos Aires, the National Technological University  and the following NGOs: Asociación Vecinos La Boca, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), FARN, Fundación Ciudad and Poder Ciudadano. These reports collected background on the matter, jointly addressing the diverse issues involved and making recommendations to responsible authorities for concrete action. The content of these reports was afterwards incorporated in a lawsuit before the National Supreme Court in July of 2004 when a group of neighbors, led by Beatriz Silvia Mendoza, filed a claim against the following organizations for damages suffered as a result of pollution of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin. The lawsuit sought liability from:

  • The National Government for allowing the denounced situation to occur in a navigable and inter-jurisdictional waterway, over which it is empowered to regulate and control, according to Article 74, paragraphs 10 and 13 of National Constitution.
  • The Province of Buenos Aires for having original dominion over the natural resources within its territory, as established by articles 121 and 124 of the Fundamental Law.
  • The Autonomous City of Buenos Aires in its capacity as proprietor of the Matanza-Riachuelo River, which constitutes a public domain resource within its jurisdiction. The City is obligated to equitably and reasonably use its waters and other river resources, along with the riverbed and its subsoil, without causing appreciable harm to the river’s other proprietors. These obligations are a result of the city’s jurisdiction over its coastal islands, within the scope of the Rio de la Plata treaty, and because Article 81 of the local Constitution mandates the preservation of the flora and fauna within the river’s ecosystem.
  • 44 adjacent businesses for having dumped hazardous waste directly into the river, for failing to constructed waste treatment plants, for failing to adopt new technologies, and for failing to minimize the risks of their activities. 

On June 20, 2006, in a historical environmental landmark for Argentina, the Supreme Court ordered the defendants to submit a clean-up plan for the basin, as well as requesting reports from the businesses detailing the measures they would take in order to halt and then reverse pollution in the area. This decision triggered public authorities’ action, it was only with the judgment that they became active, otherwise apathy would have continued to reign as regards to the basin. After a series of multisectoral public hearings before the Supreme Court on July 8, 2008 the Court handed down a second landmark decision on the case “Mendoza Beatriz Silva and Others v National government and others with regard to damages” (damages stemming from the environmental contamination of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin). The decision determined the liability of the National Government, the Province of Buenos Aires and the City of Buenos Aires, in terms of the restoration from and future prevention of environmental damage in the basin. The decision determined who was responsible for carrying forward the actions and clean-up projects and the deadlines to complete those projects, while leaving open the possibility of levying fines on the President of the Matanza-Riachuelo Basin Authority (ACUMAR) for incompletion. Moreover, in an innovative and positive step, the highest tribunal instructed the National Ombudsman and the NGOs who took part of the lawsuit as third parties (with FARN among them) to form a Chartered Body, which exercises civic control over the execution of the Supreme Court´s decision. This boosted public participation and citizen control in a matter of great social concern such as the Matanza-Riachuelo clean-up. 

Gradually improving

Almost seven years after the historical judicial decision, some positive changes can be seen in the environmental management of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin. The Basin Authority, created even prior to the Supreme Court decisions, is now working far better, though still with deficiencies, with the control of a group of CSOs and the general public, with the Supreme Court following every step and controlling the execution of the ruling.  The main challenge is to achieve a joint, coordinated work among jurisdictions involved and accountability issues, but the monitoring by the Supreme Court, CSOs and the National Auditing Authority ensures in is on the right track. The decision of July 8 provides the ideal framework to define a course that allows this Argentine icon of pollution become an example of integral, participative and efficient public policies. Medium and long term planning is not an easy task. Nevertheless, the process initiated by a group of neighbors with the support of civil society organizations and public institutions to reverse the deterioration of the basin, has grown to the point of becoming a main topic of the public agenda and mobilizing important actors and resources. This new situation obliges us to value the matters that arouse but also requires looking ahead, so as not to get lost in the hustle and bustle of a welcome process that intensifies its course but whose horizon has yet to be delineated within the framework of a wide democratic debate.  

Recommendations for successful water partnership 

Water partnerships in South America need to undergo improvements on several aspects: Firstly, I do not believe water partnerships are successfully sharing information at the South-South level which really is a serious deficiency and something to work on in order to improve. North-South information sharing is  common, but initiatives for this usually come from the North as funds are more likely to be available in the Northern hemisphere.

Secondly, as regards to my region (South America), policy is usually not based on equity, gender equality and inclusiveness. The main focus should be ensuring water for domestic consumption and social services. Agricultural and industrial sectors, at the Argentine level, demand large amounts of water, which leads to the question of water for whom and for what? You can identify unfair access to water when you realize the agriculture and industries employ excessive and inefficient amounts of water to the detriment of impoverished sectors, which do not even have access to basic services such as drinking water and sewage.

Thirdly, I believe the key to ensuring water security for the environment in an urbanized world is first, establish who are the current main water users and for what purposes and identify the main and most critical aspects and situations in terms of access and quality, and to solve them in the short term. Secondly, ensure the most needy have access to drinking water and basic public services, making the system fairer. In this sense, establishing water allocation mechanisms. And thirdly, reinforce the idea of efficient use of water and reusing wastewater for different purposes (heating and sewage). That would imply long-term awareness campaigns and brand new ways of household construction. 

Finally, cooperation could overcome transboundary scarcities and conflict by working at the regional and global level. The latter is less likely as the international community has shown its incapacity to reach environmental global agreements in recent years. Working at the bi-national or regional level appears simpler, if nations understand their shared needs and how these could be faster overcome if working together and coordinated towards a common goal. Already in place international agreements provide different tools for achieving such tasks or a bi-national/regional agreement ad hoc agreement could be signed for this specific purpose (e.g. the Ramsar Convention). I must point out that not all water-related problems can or should be solved at the river basin level. Some problems are best addressed at the sub-basin or local level. Others solutions must be sought beyond the basin itself and even outside the water sector, for example in national or federal agricultural policies. Therefore in depends on the specific case what approach to take.

Photo credit main picture: carlos_ar2000

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Ana Di Pangracio

Ana Di Pangracio works as the Coordinator of the Area of Biodiversity Conservation in Fundación A...

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