Political ecology of water chaos

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By Gonzalo Gutiérrez Nicola / Source Rebelión.org / The Dawn / January 15, 2016. The recent floods in the basins of the Parana and Uruguay rivers became famous for forcing the evacuation of thousands of families. But they also showed the consequences of a persistent environmental degradation, the inability of governments to coordinate their policies on environment and water, and the  conventional development.


Several reasons have been filed to explain the flooding that occurred in late 2015 and early 2016. Many identified the climate phenomenon known as El Niño as the main  responsible for heavy rains produced in the basin, but other voices pointed to  the lack of planning in the urbanization of coastal cities, the few works of containment to prevent overflows, the absence of warning systems, evacuation strategies and effects of dams.


Another factor identified as possible reason are extractive strategies promoted in recent years in the region, particularly soy monoculture which caused severe deforestation (as Dario Aranda [1] holds). Indeed, so far this century, in the four countries of the basin of Parana and Uruguay soybean monoculture has been intensified on a large scale for export. Social and environmental impacts of that strategy have been properly studied and reported on several occasions (for example, from CLAES in Lapitz, Evia & Gudynas [2]).


In turn, a factor that has also been mentioned, though with less emphasis than it should be, is the loss of wetlands and marshes in the countries of the region (see for example the position of the Guardians of the Ibera, Argentina [3]). Wetlands are located in lowlands and act as a natural sponge that can retain large amounts of water. The loss of these areas for productive purposes, mainly rice and forestación, have caused changes in the hydrological regime, and the waters reach new sites, flooding them.


The emergence of these major floods and thousands of evacuees make it very clear how serious the problem is. But it also shows that there are many factors involved, and it becomes very difficult to tell which was the most important one. Therefore, we are facing chaotic scenes in the handling and management of water systems in the region. In some regions it rained too much, elsewhere wetlands and forests that buffer the growth of watercourses disappeared, and in other areas the poorest invade the riverbanks. In turn, various pipes, drainage schemes, deforestation and other interventions in ecosystems are allowed. Productive strategies based on monocultures have caused severe impacts on ecosystems, altering the dynamics of water in the  region. All of these components interact and intermingle in many stages.


Conventional perspectives have many difficulties in dealing with these phenomena, that involve many factors on the environment. Traditional attitudes usually think of a few direct links between causes and effects. In these cases, however, multiple processes interact, there is not necessarily simple cause-effect links, and they are poured in huge geographical  areas. In turn, the simplistic view directs all its faith in few responses, often forgetting that the  mitigation strategies can contribute to the problem. For example, a local solution(such as building defenses against floods), could aggravate the problem in the region. Finally, it can not be forgotten that the political times are very different from ecosystems times .


Some of these factors are global, such as El Niño, but most of the others are  national or even local nature matters such as deforestation  or allow to dry wetlands. Governments involved in these floods have accused El Niño and also the  global climate changes, as this allows them to avoid the  attention of their national and local responsibilities.


At the same time , as well as these floods are manifested as a regional drama, affecting four countries, there are no good mechanisms for coordination between the  states to deal with water management and shared environments. It was not possible to achieve effective management of basin within the MERCOSUR.


The coverage in the mainstream press is symptomatic to  the fragmented view  on the subject; particularly in Argentina and Uruguay flooding is taken  as a phenomenon that “comes from outside” and about which we can do little, beyond taking steps to minimize their impacts. References reported by other countries involve counting evacuated and some specific references, such as the evacuation of lions from a zoo in a Uruguayan city. It is not sized nor responsible the production strategies on the environment promoted by all countries of the basin.


Unlike the conventional view, it should be understood that these kind of flooding problems, can certainly be aggravated by global change (climate change), but above all, they are the result of decisions taken in each country. As the effects become regional, it is necessary to transcend national logic, to think and design solutions among the four countries involved (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay). Its contents may not only be just  emergency responses, such as plans to deal with thousands of evacuees, but also organize action plans to prevent these floods to happen  and if they do happen, try  to avoid affecting thousands of families.


In the centerpiece of discussion there  should be the implications of development strategies based on extractivism, and among them, in monocultures that are being applied throughout the region. Also the lack of plans in land using and  in the urbanization. Responsibles here are national and municipal governments.


It is necessary to create mechanisms for citizen participation in the discussion and strengthen the link between communities of the basin. Here again the fragmented vision promoted by governments and the media has established a narrow nationalism. The differences between communities that have much in common from a cultural and historical point of view, are amplified, and derive greater benefit in working together rather than confrontation. The prospect of bioregions is an alternative to consider, in line with the development strategies of ecological and productive complementarity between countries.


Governments in the region have minimized – sometimes even  mocked- environmental organizations and academia warnings; as they have done,  with the opinions of local and indigenous communities. But the discussion and research on social and environmental phenomena like floods must be a priority and must be developed in a very broad framework, where all voices have to be  heard and different sectors have to be  involved.


As long as there are non-objective and utilitarian looks  -promoted by progressive or right governments – that consider nature as a set of resources for human consumption, they will continue attending every year to the effects of each new flood on communities and the environment.

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