At first glance, it may seem that Argentina has ample water resources: 22,500 cubic meters per capita for its more than 40 million residents each year. The United Nations Development Program´s water scarcity marker is 1,000 cubic meters per resident in that period.
But that average does not take into account the country´s vast arid and semi-arid regions, where supplies are not as robust, or contamination and shortages caused by the Argentina´s large industries: mining and agriculture.
“There are places where water has historically been and is scarce: in the arid zones,” says geographer Vicente Di Cione, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and Tres de Febrero University.
Argentina´s semi-arid regions — Patagonia (apart from the Andean corridor), and much of the central and northwestern provinces — comprise almost two-thirds of Argentina´s territory and have less water than the scarcity line set by the United Nations.
Even in humid and semi-humid climates — mainly the north and central eastern provinces — water´s availability does not mean that it is found in optimal conditions. Industrial waste is poured, sometimes only lightly treated, if at all, working their way back into the water cycle. Waste dump leaching, the widespread use of agrochemicals and the over-exploitation of aquifers seriously threaten water quality.
“We´re surrounded by water,” says Di Cione. “The problem is that there is a long list of activities [that threaten it]. It´s about this undefined vision of development: it seems there are no limits to development, and the same goes for the use of resources.”
Di Cione says the problem is as much society´s as it is the government´s, though he specifically points to the exploding soy business.
In the 1990s, a varied farming sector was replaced by transgenic soy monoculture, which currently covers 17 million hectares — more than half of Argentina´s arable land. The use of agrochemicals — herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers — is widespread, and the impact on the water resources of the humid plains is already evident.
The Puelche Aquifer, the most important in Argentina, supplies one third of the Buenos Aires province, half of Santa Fe and smaller parts of the Cordoba and Entre Rios provinces. It is estimated to hold 300 trillion liters of water, the only potable water of the six aquifers in this region. But a court in La Plata, capital of the Buenos Aires province, ordered an investigation earlier this year into potential nitrate levels in the city´s water network that surpass the levels allowed for the city.
A World Bank report published in 2000 on underground water resources in Argentina found that the Santa Fe province´s farming sector had already caused a “notable increase in the extraction of subterranean water … for the complementary watering of grains.” It warned that the fertilizers and pesticides widely used to increase production were a “serious risk for the aquifer.”
Last May, Santa Fe´s Water, Public Services and Environment Minister Antonio Ciancio said the local government would seek an alternative aquifer during the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF´s hydrocarbon exploration, as the company agreed to also search for water resources before it begins its oil and gas exploration and drilling.
The Puelche aquifer, which is the main water source for the province, is already contaminated, and the province does not have the money for possible solutions, including an aqueduct to divert the waters of the Parana River or to search for new aquifers.
This lack of funding for water quality control centers means a failure to adequately monitor subterranean and superficial water resources, a basic element in water safety.
Jorge Santa Cruz, a professor in continental hydrology at the University of Buenos Aires, says that the issue is not whether there is contamination, but locating it and stopping it from spreading.
“To have any reliable statistics, you need continuous monitoring, with measurements that are very expensive. Many times funding for studies are cut,” he said.
Soy replaces livestock farming
The profitability of soy led to a decline in livestock farming, since the large plains were needed to grow the crop. Livestock farming was corralled into smaller areas or feed lots, mainly in the Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Santa Fe provinces.
Saladillo, in the center of the Buenos Aires province, is considered the national “feed lot capital” where more than 100,000 cattle pass through a year. Environmental group Ecos is campaigning to eradicate the feed lots.
“It is common sense that the feed lots are a dangerous model, above all for our area, in the Salado River basin,” says Gabriel Arisnabarreta, a member of the group, referring to the porous soil and humid climate.
“When it rains, the manure contaminates the streams with nitrates, endangering human health and biodiversity,” according to a report by the organization published in 2009.
Soy farming has also led to an expansion of the farming border on native forests. In the last decade, the country lost 2.5 million hectares of forestland. These ecosystems are fundamental to regulating the water cycle, storing water in the rainy season. Greenpeace Argentina, along with other environmental organizations, says the floods in the northern part of the country over the last seven years were caused by deforestation.