“There were wars for petrol in the twentieth century,” warns Osvaldo Canziani, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize awarded for his research in climatic change, “and in the twenty-second century everyone will be fighting for water.”
Canziani is one of many environmentalists concerned about the world’s future water resources. In Argentina’s case, the glaciers in Patagonia and those dotted along the Andean mountain range are of huge importance. They provide Argentina with 70% of its ‘safe’ water. Alarmingly, these emergency reserves of this vital element are under increasing threat. In Mendoza alone, the last 20 years has witnessed 20% of the ice reserves disappear.
Foreign companies mine for gold under the vast blocks of ice, and their mechanical equipment damages the glaciers and contaminates the water that they contain. Despite this, authorities of the San Juan province have recently signed a lucrative agreement with Barrick Gold, a Canadian business. Money seems to be a priority.
For this reason, the Ley de Protección de Glaciares (Law of the Glaciers) was presented to Congress late last year. Many environmentalists and scientists felt that it was time that the government took action. Senators responded exactly as was hoped. The law was unanimously sanctioned on 22nd October 2008, with only three votes in opposition. In Argentina however, proposed legislations not only need to be first passed by Congress; they must then be made laws in a separate process. Argentine environmental organisations were about to breath a huge sigh of relief.
But it did not all go to plan. Three weeks later, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner remarkably vetoed the new law, asserting that it would affect the economy, both in the glacier zones, and nationally.
President of the Commission for Environmental Protection and Conservation, Miguel Bonasso, was outraged. He immediately appealed the veto. The law was to go back to Congress.
Shockingly for Bonasso, the result was dramatically different. Some 107 members of the Senate supported the appeal, but 90 the president’s decision. The three-quarters of the vote necessary to overturn a presidential veto were not achieved.
Bonasso vows to keep fighting for the legislation to be pushed through.
“It’s a law, not a project, and it must be fulfilled. We have to defend the water, air, and forests of the Argentine people.”
The law does not insist that any activity on the glaciers be prohibited, just projects that damage them. “The law asks for the absolute minimum preservation,” laments Bonasso. “Latin America is often seen as being quite behind in terms of environmental conservation, but this must change.”
Juan Pablo Milana of San Juan University explains why the conservation of drinkable water is paramount.
“Pollution and climatic change have already reduced the amount of healthy water. When you then consider that the human population is growing at an incredible rate, consumption logically rises. Water is also increasingly used industrially, so all in all, the world uses 56% more now than 20 years ago.”
Canziani agrees with Milana, and emphasises that the problem cannot be continually ignored. Act now and Argentina has a chance.
“Each person needs over 1,300 litres of drinkable water annually. By 2050 there will be a lack of it, and by 2080, we will be at crisis point. Water evaporation is increasing and rainfall decreasing. Estimations show that over the next century, Patagonia will suffer severe droughts.”
The vast swathes of ice are not only being protected for their reserves of water. Tourism plays a vital role in the Argentine economy, with millions of tourists flocking to Patagonia every year. In 2007, 800,000 tourists were estimated to have visited the Andean city of Bariloche alone. Take away the principal attraction, the glaciers, and a gaping hole is left in the economy. Put two and two together and you do not quite get four. Signing off a multi-million gold-mining contract might provide a short term financial injection, but the long term consequences of these decisions are thrown by the wayside, and the very existence of the glaciers is in danger.
An audience member steps forward towards the end of one of Bonasso’s press conferences and approaches the panel. He lays a banner on the front of the media table. Emblazoned across it is a message which launches the audience into a spontaneous, rapturous moment of applause.
“Water is worth more than gold!”