Under the fertile South American low lands of Argentina, Southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, lies the Guarani Aquifer. The Guarani aquifer holds enough water to supply the world’s population with 100 litres of water a day for 200 years.
The Guarani Aquifer sounds like the answer to the world’s water problem. As a self-sustaining body of water it will never run out of water; an aquifer recharges its water supply by absorbing the rainwater and water leaked from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. The Guarani Aquifer has a recharge rate of between 165 to 170 kilometres cubed per year, which is the equivalent of over 67 million Olympic sized swimming pools flowing into the aquifer each year.
But if the Guarani Aquifer is not appropriately monitored, agricultural and industrial use of the aquifer’s water could destroy this natural resource.
“The Guarani system is a striking example of an international water body threatened by environmental degradation,” says Karin Kemper, a water resources specialist with the World Bank. “Without better management, the aquifer is likely to suffer from pollution and rapid depletion. Uncontrolled exploitation could reduce it from a strategic water reserve to a degraded resource that is a focus of conflict in the region.”
The Finnish multinational Botnia and Spanish paper giant ENCE, have paper mills on the Río Uruguay, which lies in an important recharge zone for the aquifer. Greenpeace and other environmental groups claim that the paper mills are slowly polluting the aquifer.
International companies have been attracted to the region by the inexpensive water source the Guarani Aquifer provides, and the lax laws that the Mercosur countries offer foreign companies. In Argentina, multinational and local companies are treated the same in legal terms, though some of the foreign companies have a strong political pull.
In 2003 the World Bank led a move monitor the aquifer. With the World Bank’s support and investment, in 2005 the four Mercosur countries that share the aquifer launched the Guarani Aquifer Project. This project aimed to promote international cooperation focused on the use of the aquifer’s water supply, and research into its future importance and potential.
Legal, scientific and financial limitations have hampered the grand aspirations for the project, leading some South American environmentalists to describe the project as a US imperialist attempt to cripple the South American people. However, these conspiracy theories appear to have little substance beyond the social atmosphere that they breed. Inter-governmental inefficiency has played a larger part in the Guarani Aquifer Project’s failings.
The future for the Guarani Aquifer is unclear. There is no doubt that the aquifer is a natural resource of huge importance, both locally and internationally. But, how the aquifer can be used efficiently and sustainably seems to be lost in the damp and dark swamp of water politics.