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Country description
Problems to be overcome


On May 4, 1989, the Government of Uruguay and the Inter-American Development Bank signed a technical cooperation agreement to finance a national study that would help incorporate the environmental dimension into the development process of Uruguay.

Concurrently, the Government of Uruguay requested that the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States act as the executing agency of this national environmental study and that the Department of Regional Development and Environment of the Organization of American States provide the necessary technical assistance to the Uruguayan Office of Planning and Budget (OPP).

This document synthesizes the findings of the national environmental study and provides an action plan to implement the strategy, projects and programs that are based on these findings. In summary, the study established that a formal environmental policy was needed to meet the national objectives of improved quality of life for the people of Uruguay.

The strategy is grouped into nine priority programs. These include proposals for technical cooperation, project investment and institutional strengthening all designed to lead to sound environmental management and sustainable development.

Figure 1. Location of Uruguay in South America

Country description

Together with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, Uruguay shares the Plata River Basin and occupies the northern margin of the mouth of this river on the Atlantic Ocean (Figure 1).

The location of Uruguay is somewhat unique in that it is the only country in South America whose entire territory lies within the temperate zone. Further, its coastal location and comparatively level topography create a relatively uniform, temperate climate that is moderate, rainy, and humid. The rolling landscape of Uruguay offers expansive views and distant horizons. The soils are covered with a diverse vegetation of grasslands intercepted by woodlands along the rivers and creeks that also cover the more broken lands and slopes of the higher areas (Figure 2).

Of the six major watersheds in Uruguay, four are shared with neighboring countries. Both surface and ground water are relatively abundant.

Its coastal ecosystems consist of important wetlands, migrating sand-dunes, and long stretches of beach separated by exposed rocky outcrops. Coastal sites that are sufficiently protected from the elements are few.

A variety of parent material has given rise to an assortment of soils, approximately 40% of which are used solely for grazing. The remaining 60%, the majority of which are deep and relatively high in organic matter and nutrients, are used predominantly for agriculture, but also to supplement ranching. This mixture of topography, soils, climate, native vegetation and abundant water, sustains important ranching and farming enterprises. These activities have reshaped the natural ecosystems and, together with other forms of human settlement, have substantially reduced native wildlife in both number and variety.

Approximately 1.3 million of Uruguay's 3.1 million inhabitants live in Montevideo. Continuous migration from the countryside has created conditions where 87% of the population resides in urban centers. Life expectancy is 68.4 years for men and 74.8 years for women. Almost half of the population receives private health care and nearly 95% can read and write.

Figure 2. Natural Vegetation Map

Economic growth has been conditioned by the high rates of inflation that have occurred in the last few decades. During the period 1979-1983 accumulated inflation amounted to 46%. In the next five years it was 69% and in 1989 it reached 89%. Although strict control measures have been introduced, inflation remains high.

As in all countries of Latin America, economic problems, including a high level of international indebtedness, exist in Uruguay. In an effort to escape these economic problems, added pressure is placed on the country's natural resources which increasingly suffer from lack of management and overuse. The prevalent style of development has caused a slow loss of resources for agriculture and livestock production as well as a deterioration of urban conditions.

Despite the richness of the soils, the abundance of water, and the existing technical and scientific capacities, agriculture production, in terms of crops and livestock, failed to grow in the 1970s and showed little improvement in the 1980s. This production, based on systems of combined cattle and sheep ranching, varies according to the grasses that are available but generally the systems of production are extensive and make use of natural grasses and little human labor.

Agricultural production takes place primarily on the deeper, fertile soils in the south and east and on the south and central alluvial areas along the Uruguay River. In general it is oriented toward cereal production, especially rice. There is also significant production of vegetables and fruits close to Montevideo, the principal market, and in the northern part of the country, in the Uruguay River Basin (Bella Unión and Salto) where a microclimate exists that is appropriate for the cultivation of these products.

The planting of forests was linked to livestock production which required trees for protection and shade in the natural pastures. Varieties of eucalyptus were planted which became integrated into the rural landscape as groves and wind breaks. In the middle of the last century, along the coasts of the Plata River and the Atlantic Ocean, farm areas and livestock required protection from the movement of sand dunes. This protective forestation used several species of European pine and eucalyptus. However, it was the oil crisis of the last decade that increased forest planting because of the demand for wood as a source of industrial energy. Consequently, the country first used exotic species that were protective and productive; that were readily adaptable and fast growing; and, which provided early regrowth.

Although the forestry sector in Uruguay is traditionally small, in the last few years the State has favored forest activities with fiscal and financial incentives. As a consequence, an export market for round wood and for raw material for paper and sawmills has been opened. Historically, however, forests have been used for both domestic and industrial firewood. Exploitation of native forests is restricted by law although they are still used for construction purposes on farms and ranches and for firewood in urban bakeries and restaurants.

Use of firewood increased considerably after 1983 when many industries changed from fuel-oil to firewood as the basis for their energy. However, a 1989 energy inventory showed that the domestic use of firewood was even greater than that of industry. In 1987, industry completed its conversion and there has been little increase in the use of firewood since that time.

All economic sectors in Uruguay have suffered in recent years. In general terms, the trend in gross industrial product shows no growth in the last decade. Since 1983, when the greatest decline in industrial product occurred, growth was made only in mining and the food industry but these are of little significance in GDP. The transportation sector also made little progress in the last decade. And, tourism, although still an important source of foreign exchange, is responsible for coastal modification and massive use of some of the nation's beach and resort areas.

Problems to be overcome

In Uruguay, population, the extent and spread of settlements, and the increasing diversity of development activities affect the entire range of natural resources and conflicts between alternative uses of these resources have multiplied.

Rural Land-Use: Soil degradation through erosion is generalized in cultivated areas despite relatively low-intensity land-use. Its main effect is to decrease the soil's capacity to sustain historic levels of production. Several important problems can be mentioned:

· Erosion and soil compaction through overuse of farmlands; severely eroded areas in the Department of Canelones and on farmed areas along the Uruguay River; and, introduction of soybean cultivation on erosion prone soils in the eastern part of the country.

· Degradation and loss of productivity of natural pastures due to overgrazing; and poor information concerning natural ecosystems.

· Low demand for laborers; small technical advances concerning extensive livestock production systems, their extractive character and inadequate management.

· Emigration of the rural population; lack of social services; and, little social interaction between rural families.

· The principal feeding areas of migratory birds in the lowland marshes and lagoons of the Department of Rocha are being degraded and lost due to increased rice cultivation.

· This habitat loss, and the level of persecution and hunting of native fauna, has eliminated some species altogether and substantially reduced the populations of others.

· Growing chemical pollution of rural ecosystems caused by careless and/or excessive use of agrochemicals with unknown consequences for both the food chains and those people who use these chemicals.

· Increasing eutrophication of surface water resources in the more intensively farmed areas.

Urban Land-Use: Because of demographic, industrial and other development pressures, the problems of Montevideo have the greatest magnitude and intensity in terms of social impact. Although each situation is different, the urban centers of the interior have some of the same problems. In all cases, these arise from a lack of funds for meeting the increasing demand for infrastructure services. This is particularly evident where environmental sanitation and proper housing have not kept pace with population growth. A number of problems remain to be solved in urban areas:

· Formation of slums in traditional urban areas; growth of shantytowns and jerry-built dwellings on public recreation areas and on the banks of protected waterways.

· Loss of wetlands that help to clean contaminates from run off; and, unsafe and unhealthy living conditions in these areas.

· Loss of valuable urban architectural and historical heritage and disappearance of green spaces and pedestrian corridors in Montevideo.

· Settlement by low-income populations in areas prone to flooding in the riverside cities of the interior.

· Degradation of Montevideo's urban watersheds caused by a lack of sanitation and infrastructure services; obsolete sewerage systems and treatment plants; industrial dumping; poor management of liquid wastes.

· Contamination of Montevideo Bay and the consequent degradation of nearby residential areas causing beaches to be unsafe for swimming (Ramirez, Area Sur, and Carrasco)

· Contamination of bathing, resort, and urban centers of the Department of Canelones by household and industrial liquid wastes.

· Contamination of groundwater.

· Loss of farmland and other areas of production because of urbanization.

· Conflict between organized and haphazard solid-waste collection services in Montevideo; indiscriminate discard of non-biodegradable materials; permanent garbage dumps; and, contamination of urban water bodies with household wastes.

· Lack of proper control in handling and disposal of wastes from hospitals and clinics throughout the country.

· Lack of studies, information and control of solid toxic wastes from industries, which contaminate soil and water, and a lack of knowledge of their effects on public health.

· Lack of criteria for the safe disposal of solid wastes from the cities of the Interior.

Water Use: Because of the abundant water resources, awareness regarding their value is a relatively recent phenomenon. Increased demand for irrigation water, recurrent droughts and increasing contamination in the more intensively farmed areas, have raised concern about the quantity, quality and value of these resources and, therefore, about their management. The loss of public beaches and shorelines of rivers and streams-especially in Montevideo and along the Uruguay River-has raised the urban population's understanding concerning contamination. A number of problems have been identified for solution.

· Contamination of surface water by liquid effluent from urban and industrial centers. Smaller streams that receive discharges from urban centers in the interior are of particular importance.

· Contamination of the Uruguay River (primarily from point discharges in the zones of Bella Unión, Salto, and Paysandú).

· Contamination and eutrophication of surface water due to discharges from urban centers, industries, and intensively used farm land areas having high population densities. Critical cases are the watersheds of the Santa Lucia River Basin which supply 60% of the nation's drinking water; the Laguna del Sauce watershed which is the source of drinking water for the cities of Maldonado and Punta del Este; the Pando Creek; and the urban watersheds in the Department of Montevideo.

· Uncertainty as to how other important basins, such as the binational basin of Laguna Merín, should be managed.

· The urban watercourses of Montevideo become open sewers due to the flow of untreated household and industrial effluent escaping from old and deteriorated sewage systems.

· Although ground water quality from wells is generally good, contamination can be detected in aquifers near the bathing resort area of Canelones and in the milk production zones near Montevideo.

Forests: The natural forests that occur along rivers and small mountain chains continue to fulfill their roll of protection watersheds. Currently, the predominate form of native forest use is for grazing and selective extraction of timber. The periodic felling of trees for posts and firewood is normal under the existing system of agriculture. Likewise, use is made of many of the services and values normally generated by forests: shelter and shade for livestock; quality water for livestock; refuge and food for wildlife and, recently, for apiculture; watershed protection; control of the water regime; regulation of climate and microclimate; and ecotourism potential. Several important problems have been identified:

· Although apparently self sustaining, the approximately half-million hectares of forest that existed in 1937 were reduced by 20% because of harvesting during this century.

· Selective cutting has degraded the structure and quality of many of the remaining areas of native forest.

· Lack of adequate information on the value of the services provided by native forests; and, their unknown genetic potential.

· A lack of attractive choices for forestry investment alternatives for productive investment that promote water, soil, and wildlife conservation as well as to increase the country's forested area.

· Pressures from agriculture and livestock interests to alter the remaining areas of native forest and other wild-lands. Thirty-six such areas have been identified as being of interest for conservation because they are representative of the country's major ecosystems, or because of their scenic and other nature-based values.

Atmospheric Contamination: A national level, air quality control system has not yet been implemented. The Municipality of Montevideo does make measurements but only sporadically and at certain points. The Ministry of Housing, Zoning and Environment (Ministerio de Vivienda, Ordenamiento Territorial y Medio Ambiente, MVOTMA) is now the authority for air quality control. Several contamination problems exist.

· A lack of equipment, technical capacity and standards of quality for monitoring at the national level.

· Partial measurements have identified specific point sources of pollution from industries in Montevideo and other sites in the metropolitan area. The most important of these are: the oil refinery; thermal plants located on the shores of Montevideo Bay; and, toxic industrial emissions in the Department of San José.

· The eventual transborder contamination generated by the coal fired energy plant at Candiota - The study of which has been arranged by the Governments of Brazil and Uruguay.

· Non-point sources of air contamination include the fleet of obsolete city buses operating in the central zones of Montevideo and on the main traffic arteries of the country.

Mining: Increases in mining demand that more effort to reduce externalities be made to avoid future health problems and ecosystem degradation. Present-day mining activity concentrates on the extraction of non-metallic minerals, particularly building materials, such as marble and granite. The most important problems are:

· The need of an explicit mining policy covering environmental quality that would orient companies interested in mining of non-metallic and metallic minerals.

· The mining of non-metallic minerals, while not presenting problems of toxic pollution, raise questions related to occupational hazards. There is increased incidence of silicosis among quarry workers who are mining non-metallic minerals.

· The sites and the methods of sand extraction deteriorate beach quality.

· The lands used for quarries are not restored.

Tourism: Positive values for tourism require controlled use and development so as not to exceed their potential. These include scenic areas of interest for ecotourism; marshes, ravines, highland and gallery forests; abundant bird life; shoreline forests that characterize the coastal landscape; urban centers of great interest mainly in the area of Portezuelo and Punta del Este; and, local interest in the preservation of the natural scenic values of the coast (Figure 3). The main attractions for both national and international tourism are the Plata River shore-line and the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Several problems exist.

· With some outstanding exceptions, indiscriminate, homogeneous urbanization that lacks scenic interest predominates along the entire shoreline east of Montevideo.

· Construction of roads, infrastructure and culverts destroy beaches, and affect the natural dynamics of migrating coastlines.

· Certain uses of beaches destroy the protective vegetative cover and create pathways that allow wind erosion.

· The dumping of waste and the inefficiency of the sanitation services contaminate bodies of water near tourist facilities; the removal of sand degrades important resort areas.

· Illegal invasion of beaches by houses built for tourists along the coastal belt. An extremely controversial use of beaches and activities without clear development objectives are underway in La Paloma and Piriápolis.

· Pending subdivisions, if carried out according to the original plans, will destroy the remaining natural scenic values.

· Makeshift and unplanned tourist accommodations have been built in the most valuable scenic areas as well as in areas of important natural coastal dynamics.

· Threats exist to the remaining and most valuable areas of the coast where human incursion is slight and the fauna has not been infringed upon-particularly the Laguna de Rocha and Cabo Polonio (Figure 4).

· Existence of contradictory national and departmental legislation on coasts as well as uncoordinated, flawed, and outdated cadasters.

Figure 3. Tourism Areas on the Atlantic Coast

Figure 4. Threatened Coastal Areas of Uruguay

Energy: The major source of electrical energy in Uruguay is hydropower. The most important dams are the dam on the Negro River and the binational dam at Salto Grande on the Uruguay River which, together, have a capacity to generate 1566 megawatts. The weakness of the system is that it depends on a climate where droughts frequently occur. During the dry periods, Uruguay uses its capacity for steam generation (368 megawatts) to satisfy peak demands. The third source of energy is forest biomass-primarily eucalyptus-used as firewood for industry and homes. Problems of the energy sector are the following:

· High demand for oil products despite this being a resource which is totally lacking in the country.

· Insignificant use of alternative energy sources.

· Technical limitations to incorporating alternative energy sources-in particular wind power and biomass.

· Lack of technologies to increase domestic energy conservation- especially in low-cost housing.

Economic and Social Development: Many positive factors which favor sustainable development exist in Uruguay. Quality livestock products, free of toxins or steroids, are available for export to the most demanding markets; an abundance of soils, flora, fauna and ecosystems of high natural productivity and genetic value that are available for research; the existence of good quality surface and ground water for human consumption and other purposes; and, highly trained human resources that can easily learn new technologies and incorporate scientific advances into the production stream. There are, however, a number of economic and social issues that require resolution if sustainable development is to be achieved in Uruguay.

· Inadequate identification of the productive capacities of natural ecosystems and their potential for promoting equitable and sustainable development.

· The high level of national debt and poor saving capacity limit investment in new forms of development.

· Lack of jobs within the organized economy.

· The need to explicitly incorporate the environmental dimension into both formal and informal education systems.

· Lack of economic, financial, and technical capacities to investigate and invest in agricultural and industrial production.

· The lack of knowledge concerning the true quality of potable water in many urban centers and the high incidence of viral hepatitis and other diseases transmitted through water in certain areas of the country.

· High incidence of diseases: hydatidosis and Chagas in the interior.

· An increase in the mortality rate due to cancer and the uncertainty of its interrelation with the country's environmental situation.

· Urban population growth together with inadequate social infrastructure, especially sanitation, in the cities and areas of more active growth.

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