The Pantanal wetlands are the largest wetlands in the world, spanning an area of 210, 000 km2, a region the size of South Dakota and over ten times the current size of the Everglades in Florida (Silveria).
The vast area contains over 600 bird and about 300 fish species and provides homeland to over 1.8 million people (“The waterway” 40).
In 1993 only forty wood stork pairs nested in the Everglades compared to over one hundred times that in the Pantanal (Eckstrom 54).
This majestic wetland area, ruled by a seasonal pulse, acts like a large sponge throughout the year. During the wet season it collects water from an area of 1.75 million km2 (Eckstrom 54).
Rising water levels in the Pantanal can exceed seven feet. In the spring and summer months, it slowly releases it down the Paraguay River, aided by a large rock formation at the base of the Pantanal that acts like a large water valve (Silveria).
This release helps control the flood peaks of both the Paraná and the Paraguay Rivers.
Despite the majestic depiction of this area, environmental degradation has started to take its toll. Due to the manganese, iron ore, lime vein, and gold in the northern section, which reside in the hills of the Pantanal, mining has been present for years (“The waterway” 40).
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Careless use of mercury by gold miners has critically and habitually destroyed the ecosystem (Gottgens, et al. 301).
The fertile soil north of the Pantanal has contributed to a growing number of soy farmers, who are loosely regulated in regard to the types and amounts of chemicals used on crops.
Habitual dredging, not related to Hidrovía, and floodplain conversion to crop fields has impacted the flood cycles of the Paraguay and the Paraná Rivers. In 1993 flooding caused numerous deaths, displaced over 200,000 people, and triggered considerable damage (Silveria).
During 1998 one of the largest recorded floods in the history of the Paraná caused the evacuation of more than 100,000 people in Santa Fe, Argentina alone.
Portuguese for “waterway,” the Hidrovía project was first planned in the late 1980s by the La Plata Basin countries (Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay), who set up the Intergovernmental Committee on the Hidrovía (CIH) to supervise and advance the development of this project (Gottgens, et al. 302).
The planned channel will run 3450 km from Cáceres in Brazil, just north of the Pantanal, to Nueva Palmira, a port in Uruguay (“The waterway” 40).
It is considered the backbone of the Mercursor, a common market in South America composed of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay (Eckstrom 54).
An assessment of the engineering, economic, and environmental aspects of the project began in 1995 (Gottgens, et al. 302).
Initialized by the CIH, the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) funded the cost of over $10 million. The report concluded that the Hidrovía would benefit the La Plata Basin by lowering shipping costs, stimulating industrial development, and improving economic revenue with minimal damage to the environment (Gottgens, et al. 302).
This caused an even greater backlash by the environmentalists and conservationists who questioned every factor that lead to decision making in the Hidrovía.
The Hidrovía promises to be a very economically stimulating project. Completion will send soybeans and oil, corn, cotton, manganese and iron ore downstream while diesel fuel, canned food, and manufactured goods will travel upstream to the small towns along the Hidrovía (Margolis 15).
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It is estimated that 17 million people in the area will benefit from the new flow of goods.
The estimated monetary costs of Hidrovía are relatively high. The Hidrovía will $1 billion for construction with an additional $3 billion for the maintenance in the first twenty five years (Silveria).
Economists predict that only if 100% of the estimated optimum cargo were actually ferried along the Hidrovía would the project bring in enough revenue to be sustainable without additional costs to the taxpayers (Silveria).
The current plan is not suitable for environmental needs and there must be methods to increase transportation while decreasing costs. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a statement detailing their official position on the Hidrovía (Silveria).
In it, the WWF stated that economic integration was a feasible plan, but the Hidrovía should only be in place south of the Pantanal where it will not affect the hydrology of the wetlands. To replace the Hidrovía in the upper Paraguay River and the Pantanal, railroad could be used to transport goods to Resistencia, Argentina on the Paraná River and from there they could be taken by barge to the sea. This would require the construction of an extensive rail system which could also adversely affect the environment of the Pantanal, but probably would not affect the hydrology.