By Fabiana Frayssinet
In the 1990s, a residential boom began that privatizes neighborhoods on vital ecosystems, building socio-economic walls in the Metropolitan Region of Buenos Aires, and now also environmental ones.
The sudestada is a phenomenon typical of the La Plata river basin, with rapid rotation of strong winds, followed by eddies of air and rain.
This time the winds exceeded 70 kilometers per hour and there was more rainfall in two days than expected for two months, which overflowed rivers, flooded large areas and left more than 5,000 evacuees. Jorge Capitanich, Chief of Cabinet of the Cristina Fernández government, attributed the floods to "a combination of the southeast, heavy rains and saturation of water basins." But Patricia Pintos, from the Geographical Research Center of the University of La Plata, pointed out that this confluence of factors was aggravated by the "spread of an urbanizing phenomenon", with the proliferation of "nautical" neighborhoods or "closed aquatic urbanizations".
This real estate offer in walled cities "seeks to generate landscapes close to or linked to artificial or natural bodies of water," this geographer, co-author of the book "La privatopía sacrílega," explained to Tierramérica. Effects of private urban planning in the lower basin of the Luján river ”.
Many of these luxury gated communities occupied river floodplains and vast areas of wetlands, considered vital in the natural water course, for water runoff as the water rises.
"What happened with this urbanizing phenomenon is that they advanced on the place that fulfilled the role of amortization of the floods," he explained. The wetlands "are clogged with urbanizations that, paradoxically, promote a lifestyle associated with the enjoyment of water and nature," urban planner Laila Robledo, of the National University of General Sarmiento, told Tierramérica.
In the lower basin of the Luján river, these neighborhoods for affluent sectors of the population grew in four of the most affected municipalities: Pilar, Campana, Escobar and Tigre, which occupy more than 7,000 hectares.
"The succession of 65 urbanizations like these, modified the topography of the relief in the area of the river mouth, and stopped drainage in events such as those experienced this month," Pintos warned. These neighborhoods, which the specialist calls “polderized closed urbanizations (with perimeter embankments)”, “imply a profound alteration of the natural morphological characteristics, not only to reach the levels of habitable floor level in the plots for residential use (filling), but to generate new bodies of water (dredging and refilling) ”This implies, for example, digging to create artificial lagoons and using that land to fill low areas. In addition, as these neighborhoods are in flooded areas, perimeter embankments between six and 10 meters high are built to protect them from the entry of outside water. "They serve as protection but at the same time act as dikes and generate flooding situations in neighboring neighborhoods." "What protects them hurts those who are outside," summarized the geographer.
In Tigre, 10 percent of its 350,000 inhabitants live in neighborhoods of this type, which occupy half the territory, according to the municipality's secretary general, Martín Gianella, told Tierramérica. “It is what we call a model of socio-territorial segregation. It is divided through walls, territories and society, ”he said. Gianella clarified that Tigre, in the north of the so-called Greater Buenos Aires, has historically been flooded by sudestadas. "The novelty that we have experienced in the last five years is flooding due to rain, which is not by chance that it mainly occurs in neighborhoods adjacent to gated communities developed in the last decade," he said.
The official urged the municipality to control and regulate these constructions and "to demand a special tax from these mega developers, to invest it in the necessary hydraulic works." Robledo stressed that changes in hydraulic regimes do not affect only the areas surrounding closed neighborhoods, because Buenos Aires is a plain crossed by hydrographic basins. "The city is part of an urban metabolism, what occurs in one place affects the rest," he explained. Therefore, the solutions must be "interjurisdictional", he said. According to the urban planner, the construction of these closed neighborhoods "favors the privatization of the city and real estate speculation, to the detriment of the rest of the population." Based on a "profitability logic" on land value, "companies buy historically cheap floodplains, fill them to make them habitable and generate extraordinary profits," he summarized.
"It is the result of the growth of a city development model adopted by municipalities that are very prone to favoring large flows of investment," added Pintos. Both agreed that the norms and socio-environmental risk maps to regulate these constructions exist, but that they are not applied. The great real estate entrepreneurs in the province of Buenos Aires, such as Gonzalo Monarca, president of Grupo Monarca, denied being responsible for the problem they attribute to climate change. "It is a fallacious argument", reacted Robledo.
“Climate change is evident worldwide but the consequences are minor or greater according to how the population sits on the cities.
"If we occupy a flood valley that is used for the water to occupy it when the river rises, it is obvious that the water will drain to other areas," he reaffirmed. Robledo considered that by not regulating and prohibiting this type of undertaking, cities will remain flooded longer and more frequently, even with less copious rains.
Pintos goes further with solutions that are “not very nice (politically)” and “very onerous”, but that should not be ruled out due to the worsening of the problem. He recalled experiences of relocation of populations on the banks of the Mississippi River, on which the American city of New Orleans historically advanced, with the dramatic consequences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Another intermediate solution would be to prohibit new private neighborhoods in fragile ecosystems, and that review the authorizations granted to continue building within them. He also recommended that companies "face the costs of remediation", although these works would be "a palliative against a critical situation", which "could have been avoided if rationality had prevailed."
Leandro Silva, chief of environment for the National Ombudsman's Office, reminded Tierramérica that in 2010 that agency warned the municipalities of Zárate, Campana, Escobar, Tigre and San Fernando about the risks of the expansion of gated communities in the ecosystem from the delta of the Paraná River, and urged them to respect environmental impact studies and exercise strict controls.
“The recurrence of floods and the impacts on the most vulnerable citizens make it necessary to deepen these mechanisms, and to exercise prevention in an active way, deploying in the water basins all the environmental management instruments required by law: environmental impact assessments, citizen participation, environmental planning of the territory and access to public information ”, he stressed.
This article was originally published by the Tierramérica network of Latin American newspapers. Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez