The Bermejo River Basin, located in southern South America, extends over some 123,000 km², originating in the Andes Mountains of northwestern Argentina and southern Bolivia. The river, which flows approximately 1,300 km, links two major geographic features: the Andean Cordillera and the Paraguay-Paraná Rivers. It is the only river that completely crosses the huge expanse of the Chaco Plains, acting as a corridor for the connection of biotic elements of both the Andean mountains and the Chaco Plains. Radically differing weather and topographic conditions in the large basin promote an array of rain forests, humid valleys, and mountain deserts in the Upper Basin and dry forests as well as humid and gallery forests in the Lower Basin. There is exceptional habitat diversity along the water course.
In 1995, the Binational Commission for the Upper Bermejo and Grande de Tarija River basins requested GEF (Global Environment Facility) assistance for the preparation of a water resources management program in the binational watershed. This assistance helped with the preparation of a project proposal for the formulation of a Strategic Action Program (SAP), seeking to solve the priority transboundary environmental problems affecting the basin.
The Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (TDA) and preparation of the SAP was conducted between 1997 and 2000. Activities included the identification of priority environmental concerns and related sectoral issues; the implementation of pilot demonstration projects to assess the feasibility and relative costs of specific remedial measures; and the establishment of a comprehensive public participation and consultation process for the planning and implementation of development projects in the basin.
Sediment loadings in the Bermejo waters are some of the highest in the world (8 kg/m³). Total discharge of sediment is around 100 million tons/year. The greater part of the sediment is produced in the Upper Basin and flushed down during peak floods. The amount of sediment deposited along the course of the Lower Basin during floods regularly changes the course of the river, impeding rational use of water and land resources.
The population in the river basin is estimated at 1.2 million, the majority being rural workers, small farmers, and indigenous communities, with the lowest levels of income, education, and sanitary conditions. The basin has a history of “extractive” exploitation of forests, which has resulted in diminished biodiversity and impoverished natural resources. The clearing of land for cultivation and widespread overgrazing have created problems of erosion and desertification, aggravating sediment mobilization that has contributed to downstream environmental degradation.
As identified in the TDA, the main environmental problems affecting the basin include:
- Soil degradation
- Water resource degradation
- Water scarcity
- Biodiversity loss
- Floods and other natural hazard events
- Diminished quality of life and endangered cultural resources
The Strategic Action Program (SAP) put forth by both governments represents a comprehensive 20-year, US$470 million proposal that seeks to address the major environmental issues mentioned in the previous section and to promote sustainable development of the basin. To help lay the groundwork and initiate the implementation process, a small number of high priority actions were selected from each program component, and subsequently approved for GEF financing. Actions are grouped in four categories:
- Environmental protection and rehabilitation;
- Sustainable development of natural resources;
- Institutional development and strengthening;
- Public awareness and participation.
Building upon the priority actions set forth in the SAP, the primary objective of this project is to assist the governments of Argentina and Bolivia in addressing the root causes of the principal environmental problems affecting the Bermejo River Basin. The focus will be on their main transboundary manifestations - namely, sediment erosion, transport, and deposition - and to promote the sustainable development of the Bermejo River Binational Basin (BRBB). Specific activities have been selected in order to catalyze the actions of the SAP, including (i) the creation, restoration and protection of natural vegetated areas; (ii) the conservation of aquatic and terrestrial habitat; (iii) the support of widespread participation in the management of natural resources through improved access to information and enhancement of public awareness; and (iv) the control of water-borne contaminants. A key feature of this project will be the replication and extension, throughout the Bermejo and Plata basins, of the localized activities of the SAP formulation project that were determined to be feasible measures for the integration of the geographic and demographic aspects of watershed management within the BRBB.
The project design, based on extensive public consultation carried out through regional planning workshops, comprises four components: (i) river basin and coastal zone environmental analysis; (ii) public and stakeholder participation; (iii) organizational structure development; and (iv) Watershed Management Program formulation. In addition, the following crosscutting issues permeate the project execution: information sharing and dissemination; quantification of water use, use conflicts, and hydrological management; and financial mechanisms. The project has been implemented in direct partnership with four Federal institutions, three State bodies, four universities, and four NGOs, in the context of institutional participation of more than 450 institutions.
- Implementing Agency: United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)
- Regional Executing Agency: Organization of American States/ Department of Sustainable Development
- Local Executing Agency: Binational Commission for the Development of the Upper Bermejo and Grande de Tarija River Basins