South American floods: political ecology of water chaos

South American floods: political ecology of water chaos

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Several reasons have been put forward to explain the floods that occurred in late 2015 and early 2016. Many identified the climatic phenomenon known as El Niño as the main cause of the intense rains that occurred in the basin, but other voices pointed to the lack of planning in the urbanization of riverside cities, the few containment works to prevent overflows, the absence of warning systems and evacuation strategies and the effects of dams.

Another factor identified as responsible is the extractivist strategies promoted in recent years in the region, in particular the soybean monoculture that caused severe deforestation, eliminating it (as argued by Darío Aranda [1]). Indeed, throughout the century, large-scale soy monoculture for export has intensified in the four countries of the Paraná basin and Uruguay. The social and environmental impacts of this strategy have been duly studied and reported on several occasions (for example, from CLAES in Lapitz, Evia & Gudynas [2]).

In turn, a factor that has also been pointed out, although with less emphasis than it should be, is the loss of wetlands and bathing areas in the countries of the region (see for example the position of the Guardians of Iberá, Argentina [3]). Wetlands are located in lowlands and act like a natural sponge capable of holding large amounts of water. The loss of these areas for productive purposes –mainly for rice cultivation and forestry– has caused changes in the water regime, and the waters reach new places, flooding them.

The outbreak of these great floods and their thousands of evacuees make it very clear the seriousness of the problem. But it also shows that there are many factors involved, and it becomes very difficult to indicate whether one was the most important. Therefore, we are facing chaotic scenarios in the management and management of water systems in the region. In some regions it rained excessively, in other places the wetlands and forests that buffer the growth of water courses disappeared, and in other areas the poorest sectors invade the river banks. At the same time, different channels, drainage, deforestation and other interventions in ecosystems are authorized. The productive strategies based on monocultures have caused severe impacts on ecosystems, altering the dynamics of water on a regional scale. All these components interact and intermingle to varying degrees.

Conventional perspectives have many difficulties in dealing with these phenomena that involve many factors on the environment. It is that traditional positions usually think of direct relationships between a few causes and their effects. In these cases, however, multiple processes interact, there are not necessarily simple cause-effect links, and all of them spill over into huge geographic areas. In turn, the simplistic view puts all its faith in a few answers, forgetting that mitigation strategies can often contribute to aggravating the problem. For example, a solution on a local scale (such as building defenses to prevent floods) could exacerbate the problem on a regional scale. Finally, it cannot be forgotten that political times are very different from the times of ecosystems.

Some of these factors are global, like El Niño, but most of the others are national and even local, like tolerating deforestation or allowing wetlands to dry out. The governments involved in these floods have blamed El Niño and even global climate change, as this allows them to divert attention from their national and local responsibilities.

At the same time, while these floods manifest themselves as a regional drama, affecting four countries, there are no good coordination mechanisms between states to deal with water management and shared environments. It has not been possible to achieve effective basin management within MERCOSUR.

The very coverage in the conventional press is symptomatic of the fragmented view that is had on the subject; particularly in Argentina and Uruguay floods are pointed out as a phenomenon that “comes from outside” and about which we can do little beyond taking precautions to minimize its impacts. References to other countries do not go beyond the evacuation count and some specific reference, such as the evacuation of lions from a zoo in a Uruguayan city. Utilitarian productive strategies on the environment promoted from all the countries of the basin are not dimensioned or held responsible.

Unlike the conventional view, it must be understood that problems such as these floods can undoubtedly be aggravated by a global transformation (climate change), but above all they are the consequence of decisions made 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 can not only be responses in the emergency, such as plans to deal with thousands of evacuees, but also organize action plans to prevent these floods from occurring and that if they do happen, prevent them from affecting thousands of families.

At the center of this discussion should be the implications of development strategies based on extractivisms, and among them, on monocultures that are applied throughout the region. Also the lack of planning in land use and urbanization. Those responsible here are national and municipal governments.

It is necessary to generate mechanisms that allow the participation of citizens in the discussion and strengthen the bond between the communities of the basin. Here once again the fragmented vision promoted by governments and the media has consolidated a narrow nationalism. The differences between communities that have much in common from a cultural and historical point of view are amplified, and that will obtain greater benefits in joint work rather than in confrontation. The bioregions perspective is an alternative to be taken into account, in the line of developing ecological and productive complementarity strategies between countries.

The governments of the region have downplayed - if not ridiculed - warnings from environmental organizations and academia; They have done the same with the views of local and indigenous communities. But the discussion and research on floods as a socio-environmental phenomenon should be a priority issue and take place within a very broad framework, where all the voices and stakeholders involved are heard.

To the extent that biased views with utilitarian emphasis prevail - whether promoted by progressive governments or by governments of the right - that consider nature as a set of resources destined for human consumption, we will continue to witness the effects of each new flood year after year. about communities and the environment.

[1] Aranda, Darío. The human hand behind the water. Page 12, December 29, 2015
[2] Lapitz, R., Evia, G. and Gudynas, E. (2004) Soy and meat in Mercosur. Trade, environment and agricultural development. Editorial Coscoroba, Montevideo. Available at
[3] Argentina: Floods, rice fields and forestations aggravate the situation of the increase of bodies of water in Corrientes. BiodiversityLA
- Gonzalo Gutiérrez Nicola is a researcher at the Latin American Center for Social Ecology (CLAES).


Video: Water chaos: People in Middleton stranded at businesses and hotels overnight due to flooding (June 2022).


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