The Riachuelo, the dirtiest river in Argentina, has a rival: the Reconquista River, which runs
along the northwest border of Buenos Aires.
A recent study shows that the Reconquista is nearly as dirty as
the Riachuelo, which runs through the southern part of Argentina's
capital and is one of the most polluted in the world.
"It's another dead river, another open sewer full of garbage,
sewage effluents and industrial waste," said national Ombudsman
Eduardo Mondino. izations.
The Reconquista River emerges 60 kilometers west of Buenos Aires,
and runs 82 kilometers until mingling with the waters of the Luj†n
River in the Paran† Delta. The Paran† River flows into the R°o de
la Plata, the world's widest estuary, which separates Argentina and
The Reconquista runs through 18 different outlying districts of
Greater Buenos Aires, affecting the lives of more than 4 million
According to the study, which was prompted by complaints by local
residents, 40 percent of people living in the shantytowns and poor
neighborhoods that line the river have no piped water and 60
percent have no sanitation.
But in some neighborhoods, the situation is even more critical. In
Malvinas Argentinas, which is home to 280,000 people, 91 percent
of local residents lack drinking water and 96 percent lack
Some 12,000 factories line the Reconquista, into which they dump
their untreated waste. That is nearly four times the number of
companies that pollute the Riachuelo.
The 64-kilometer Matanza-Riachuelo River runs from western Buenos
Aires into the R°o de la Plata, cutting across 14 Buenos Aires
In a 2001 report on the Riachuelo, the national ombudsman's office
described the "alarming state" of the river and the health risks
faced by the 3.5 million people living in the neighborhoods in the
The results of that report were echoed four years later by a study
by the office of the auditor general.
Based on these elements, the Supreme Court handed down an
unprecedented ruling, in a lawsuit brought by a group of Riachuelo
residents. In June 2006, the Court gave national, provincial and
municipal authorities 30 days to present a clean-up program and
ordered 44 companies to report on the liquid waste they dump in the
river and provide environmental impact studies.
The decision also ordered all parties, including civil society
groups, to participate in a landmark public hearing to come up with
solutions for the polluted river. In addition, it forced the
government of President NÇstor Kirchner and parliament to make
faster progress towards the creation of a River Basin Authority
made up of delegates from all three levels of government --
municipal, provincial and national.
Furthermore, regulations on industrial and domestic effluents were
unified, and a plan was launched to bring piped water to households
in the neighborhoods along the river.
People living near the Reconquista River are hoping for a similar
ruling in their case. By means of the Special Report on the
Reconquista River Basin and a lawsuit filed by environmental
organizations, local residents hope the case will make it all the
way up to the Supreme Court.
"The report is very solid and gives us a strong scientific basis
for legal action," said Mart°n Nunziata, an activist with the
Aprodelta environmental organization.
"The situation here is identical to what we see in the Riachuelo,
and the waters also run into the R°o de la Plata estuary," said
Nunziata, who lives in the delta.
Ironically, although the two most polluted rivers in Argentina are
the Riachuelo and Reconquista, the highest-profile activism in
defense of a river is being waged by people from the town of
Gualeguaych£ in the eastern province of Entre R°os, whose struggle
is credited by activists around the country for putting ecological
questions on the table and forcing the authorities to take a
For the past two years, the people of Gualeguaych£ have been
protesting construction of a paper pulp mill on the Uruguayan side
of a river that forms part of the border between Uruguay and
The plant, which is being built by Botnia from Finland, is located
25 kilometers from Gualeguaych£. Unlike the factories that dump
untreated waste into the Riachuelo and Reconquista Rivers, it will
use the latest technology to prevent pollution of the Uruguay
Nevertheless, local residents in the town have blocked
international bridges between the two countries during the last
three summer tourism seasons.
The Reconquista River study by the ombudsman's office, which was
drawn up by experts from the universities of Mor¢n, Luj†n and
General Sarmiento, is aimed at "generating a new kind of public
response" coordinated by the state and civil society, based on a
broader vision of the problem that would contribute to coming up
with sustainable solutions.
According to the report, the concentrations of heavy metals in the
Reconquista River far exceed safe levels, ranging from two to 160
times the acceptable limits, depending on the metal, "which
indicates a high level of pollution from industrial effluents."
The report also notes that "highly toxic" agrochemicals were found
in the water at levels that were 40 to 400 times higher than the
limits tolerable for aquatic life.
There is also a "high quantity" of chlorides, phosphates, phenols,
inorganic nitrogen compounds and coliform bacteria.
At the mouth of the river, the pollution is so severe that the
experts found a total lack of oxygen.
"There is no doubt that there is a potentially adverse
environmental health impact," the authors concluded after an
in-depth evaluation of that aspect of the problem.
Environmental health was precisely the facet that had the strongest
impact on the Supreme Court justices when they decided to take a
hand in the case of the Riachuelo River.
The most heavily polluting industries along the Reconquista River
are tanneries, meat-packing plants, and chemical and agrochemical
factories distributed throughout the 1,600-square-kilometer river
basin, that discharge 90 percent of their effluents without any
treatment into the river Mondino said.
The Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers brought legal
action last year against the federal state and the province of
Buenos Aires, to hold them accountable for the state of the river
and demand an immediate halt to polluting activities.
In the 1990s, the government of the province of Buenos Aires,
through its Secretariat of Environmental Policy, created a Unit for
the Coordination of the Reconquista River Project. But the unit has
only carried out works of infrastructure, and has no environmental
policy, Mondino said.
One of the unit's main infrastructure projects was the construction
of a relief channel to ease the impact of floods on people living
on the banks of the Reconquista River and the delta. But since
then, at every high tide, the artificial channel distributes
pollution from the Reconquista throughout the waters of the delta.
The Inter-American Development Bank and the Japan International
Cooperation Agency financed the construction of the relief channel,
which cost nearly $400 million. But the plan was also supposed to
include sanitation and clean-up works along the Reconquista River,
which were never carried out, Nunziata said.
In the Special Report on the Reconquista River Basin, both the
Secretariat of Environmental Policy and the Unit for the
Coordination of the Reconquista River Project acknowledged the
gravity of the problem.
Nevertheless, they said clean-up plans are being carried out, whose
effects can be evaluated in 20 years, once the works are completed.