Hot Water

The water of the aquifer is hot! Or at least, it is in the province of Entre Rios and especially around the city of Concordia, which was/is home of the one of the four pilot projects run in the framework of the Guarani Aquifer System. The project was funded by the World Bank and implemented by the OAS ( Organisation of American States) with the contribution of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and run through 2003-2009 (find it here). The aim was to provide a concise scientific overview of the advances in understanding of the Guarani Aquifer System. In Concordia (Argentina) and Salto (Uruguay), this was manifested as a  study of the hydrogeothermal potential of the aquifer.

Thermal spas around the area have been mushrooming lately, the first well was dug in the nearby city of Federacion in 1994, then Concordia in 1998 and since then other 6 appeared. This is just on the Argentinian side – there are even more in Uruguay (Salto represents the main thermal tourism destination in the whole of South America!). The aim of the pilot project was to provide a foundation for a sustainable and efficient use of the Aquifer and prevent mismanagement in this respect, i.e., to defend the aquifer from exploitation and preserve its water quality.  It is interesting, however, to find that actually the Guarani Aquifer can be a threat for other superficial water resources because of its water characteristics. In Concordia and Federacion the water is fresh, but in the other places, especially in Argentina, it contains salinity. There is no efficient system for the discharge of the effluents, and once the water is used it gets sent back to the River Uruguay as it is, without any kind of treatment. Salty water alters the flora and fauna of the river, and this means that the aquifer is actually contaminating the river!

Like many tourists, I was in Concordia over a bank holiday weekend. The spa there can serve a  capacity of 1200 people but to do this must suck  350.000 litres of water per hour from under the ground.  The water spills naturally – fed by the great resource of tourism. Here the Aquifer comes to the surface in a hot and troubled form. It is a form of luxury and profit, but it is also a source of development for the area. It is a everything that a commodity is and so much more.


He Dicho NO! A Botnia. I Say ‘NO’ to Botnia!

Along the Uruguay River, in Argentinian territory, there’s a small town called Gualeguaychú which has a population of 100,000, plus 10-15,000 more over the summer as the town is an easy and pretty get-a-way destination for the portenos of Buenos Aires. The Uruguay River is 10km away and a small off-shoot, the River Gualeguachú, runs right through the middle of the city.

Across the river from Gualeguaychu, high up on the Uruguayan side, in Fray Bento, a Finnish company called Botnia operate a pulp mill. It opened three years ago and produces cellulose that is shipped to us.

In response to the opening of this pulp mill the people of Gualeguaychú embarked on a massive and enduring protest against Botnia, accusing it of polluting the river, killing its flora and fauna and affecting tourism in the area. During the protest, local people from Gualeguaychu blocked the international bridge that connects the two towns. The bridge remained blocked for almost two and a half years simply by being occupied by thousands of people every single day.

The case against the pulp mill was brought to the courts of law and ended up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year. The court finally ruled that the river is contaminated, but that it is not possible to demonstrate that this is solely due to the presence of the pulp mill. This inability to prove guilt is one of the many complications facing those involved in the fight to protect vital water sources.

Wiki gives a full chronology of the event and here you can find detailed informations of the case.

I came here because I believed that the Gualeguaychú pulp mill dispute affected the Guarani Aquifer and, as such, that it represented a failure in transnational policy to achieve consensus where transnational cooperation is crucial.

What I discovered while here was a very different story. I saw no visible signs of pollution. In fact, I saw active efforts on the side of the authorities in Gualeguaychú to combat pollution. For example, I toured a purification plant in the province (I don’t know how many others there are) and they happily showed me around and explained everything to me, including about how these plants represent the city’s efforts to be environmentally friendly.

Having said this, Gualeguaychú also fails in its efforts to protect its water resources by choosing the economic benefit of spa tourism over water purity. One of the major tourist attractions is a thermal spa, that gets its water directly from the Guarani Aquifer. Once the water is used and discharged from the spa, it returns to the Uraguay River in a salinated state which causes damage to the local flora and fauna.

I left with more questions than answer. This all needs to be researched more, but it gives a taste of how complex the matter is, even on the local level. One thing was clear- the age old conflicts between global vs. local, industry vs. nature and private interest vs. communal activism still exist.

Ultimately, one thing shone through- the relationship between people and water is an intimate one. It’s either an environmental cause, a pastime, a family walk, a quiet escape, a date or a playground, but take away the river and the social and cultural life of Gualeguaychú would go with it. It’s not that the people need the river solely to survive- it’s fundamentally who they are.


See what happened to the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas…

Farmers fear the return of the dust bowl – The Telegraph


Guarani Aquifer? What is it?

We will run out of water. Maybe not us, maybe not the kids, but we, as humans on planet earth, will run out of water. There is only a finite amount of fresh surface water on the planet and as our population continues to boom, bringing with it the need for food produced by intensive agriculture and the desire for goods produced by industry, we are reaching a tipping point. The question about whether water is a commodity or a universal human right will become more pertinent than ever. As for oil, we drill deeper and deeper for new water, and from under the ground fresh water spills out of aquifers. As Wiki says: “An aquifer is a wet underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravelsandsilt, or clay) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquifer).

There is very big aquifer hidden under the ground of SouthAmerica, called the Guarani Aquifer. Named after the indigenous Guarani people, it is a vast underground source of freshwater spanning roughly 119,00,000 km2. It lies underneath Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay. 24 million people live directly on top of the Aquifer and this is extended to 70 million if the cities in nearby proximity are included. The Guarani Aquifer contains  37,000km3 cubed of water and it has been claimed that it could supply the entire global population with the drinking water it needs for 200 years. Yet, despite its size and the potential of this water source, it has not received the attention it is due. Have YOU ever heard about it? I certainly hadn’t, up until a couple of months ago when it was brought to my attention and I decided to embark on this project.

The Guarani Aquifer - Map designed by Marko Perendija

In a landscape of increasing global scarcity and political conflict over water, the fact that it is a natural resource ‘owned’ by 4 sovereign nations who are signed up to various trade agreements, begins to indicate how complex the situation is in terms of legal structures and sustainable management systems. Although pollution has not reached critical levels, the four countries above the Aquifer are developing rapidly and will increasingly experience demand from private companies as well as public bodies to extract water from the Aquifer. It is a simple equation that for the aquifer to be maintained extraction can only occur at the same rate as replenishment, therefore it is necessary that an impactful debate about maintaining the sustainability of the Aquifer is entered into now. A management system needs to be implemented and serious questions efficiently addressed.

I will be travelling over the Argentinian part of the Guarani for the next month, starting a photographic documentary project about it. I will collect all my finds on-the-go in this blog. The Colours of Water:Guarani Aquifer is an ongoing open space and open source on the matter, it needs to be fed, read and spread.