The Most Dangerous Riverbank in the World
One of the most contaminated zones of El Riachuelo: the point where it passes through Buenos Aires. Photo by Ricardo Ceppi.
The Most Dangerous Riverbank in the World
El País: El riachuelo más peligroso del mundo
Soledad Gallego-Díaz reporting from Buenos Aires May 16, 2011
It’s one of the most pestilent and rotten places in the world, and on its riverbank, the riskiest area, live close to 11,000 people exposed to all kinds of infections diseases, strange blood pathologies, heavy carcinogenic metals, and large refuse piles. This isn’t some remote location in an undeveloped country; it’s an avenue in the middle of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires close to the popular La Boca neighborhood. It’s Riachuelo, where Gardel once sang and which today is one of the five most contaminated waterways on earth.
Its official name is Cuenca de Matanzas-Riachuelo, and it a 64 kilometer stretch in the federal capital splitting splitting Boca and sealed off by barriers that direct the attention of tourists elsewhere so they are will not be frightened on the way to the famous Caminito. It passes through various municipalities of Buenos Aires province, like Lanús and Lomas de Zamora. A little boat ride through this, the closest zone to the capital, reveals completely dead water, infected mud, and unending garbage mixed with industrial textiles from large and small companies that release their waste in the water without any kind of control. The smell is insufferable.
The situation is so scandalous that the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented decision in 2008, demanded the authorities of the federal government, the capital, and the province immediately put a sanitation plan into action which would be financed by credit already received from the World Bank.
The first order of business, according to the court order, is to settle the people in the villas (shantytowns) on the bed of the Riachuelo in other locations, most of all Villa 21-24, the settlement called El Pueblito, and those in Lanus. The second is to have the thousands of companies, small-, middle-, and large-scale alike, restructure their operations so they will not pour more dangerous waste into the river.
In August 2010, a federal judge charged with the execution of the plan decided to impose a daily fine on the president of the Acumar Basin Authority for failure to act. The fine was suspended; the president of Acumar was changed, and some actual work finally began.
This year, the same Court has called a public meeting in June in which the basin authority will have to explain to the poor citizens the advances made and admit that it is still far from completing its objectives. The inhabitants of the principal villas in question have not been moved, and there has not been an actual census of which companies are releasing sewage into the river.
The list of “agents of contamination” has registered some 4100 firms, but the principal NGOs working in the zone believe there are close to 20,000, some of them small but just as damaging as others. To top it off, a group of the scant number of temporary homes built for the displaced has been illegally occupied by inhabitants of other villas, and neither the federal, the provincial, nor the municipal police has done anything to evict them despite three consecutive judicial orders. No one in this electoral season wants “his police” starting street fights.
The last report from the Collegial Body, an organization created to keep an eye on the completion of the mandate and which belongs to the public defender’s office and NGOs like Greenpeace, assures that the number of refuse piles in the zone, which should have been controlled within 180 days, haven’t decreased but rather have increased, and nothing has been done to help the people who live around them move out.
The report laments that businesses producing so-called Dock Sud, petrochemical and combustible buffers, have not been declared “agents of contamination.” The inhabitants of the neighborhood ironically named “Inflammable Villa”, the report highlights, receive water in irregularly shaped containers “with violated warranties and expired expiration dates.” There isn’t a single permanent system for measuring air quality in the entire bank.
The council complains that it doesn’t have access to information about the level of contamination by businesses. What’s worse, the method that it is used to decide waste-dumping standards is no good, it says, because it uses concentration as a criteria without taking into account that the river’s carrying capacity has already been exceeded. “Even if all the industries respect the norms, which would never, ever happen, the Riachuelo would still be frighteningly and dangerously contaminated,” it concludes.