December 7, 2005

Argentina works to stem farmland floodings

By Nicolas Misculin

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) - Viewed from above, the
gentle Salado river that runs through Argentina's fertile Pampa
prairies looks harmless enough.

But in the last 20 years, its inundations have largely kept
19.8 million acres of some of the world's richest farmland from
being used -- or nearly one-third of the area Argentine farmers
seeded with grains and oilseeds last season.

In response, the government is carrying out a $1.2 billion
project to reduce flooding in the Salado river basin and
promote farming on fallow lands in Buenos Aires province,
Argentina's top grain and beef producer.

"Our aim is to protect the whole of Buenos Aires province
from the risk of flooding," Raul Rivara, the provincial
agriculture minister, told Reuters.

From the air aboard a government plane, one could see 13
dredgers at work to deepen the river and other machines
munching away at the riverbanks to create a canal measuring 490
feet wide.

The government says 4.9 million acres of farmland have been
put to use since the project began in 2002.

The Salado river basin covers 42 million acres and produces
25 to 30 percent of grains, oilseeds and meats in Argentina,
one of the world's top agricultural exporters.

Farmers in Buenos Aires province, which is about the same
size as Italy, mostly grow wheat, corn and soybeans and raise

"This is the first time that such major public works are
being done," said Marcelo Fielder, an official at the private
Argentine Rural Society who is auditing the project.


Many farmers had to stop using their flooded fields for
years thanks to the Salado river and others saw their lands --
still dry -- cut off from neighboring plots by a sea of water.

"The floods in the last 20 years were very big and very
frequent. Half of my fields were under water for two to three
years," said Jorge Gallino, whose cattle ranch lies near the

At the same time, property values plunged and made it
virtually impossible for farmers to sell -- a trend that is
finally starting to change with the containment project.

In addition to deepening and widening the Salado river,
workers are designing systems to drain and retain water better
and are building bridges and other needed infrastructure.

Dredgers scoop up mud from the river floor and deposit it
in nearby fields to fill low-lying areas, some of which are
surrounded by intensely colored, yellow wheat fields.

"This project ensures that farmers have the possibility of
planning ahead because they know they won't be flooded," Rivara


The project, which could take up to 10 years to finish in
some areas, has had difficulties since it was conceived in the

After years of delays, construction was held up again in
2002 due to accusations about mishandling of the concessions
granted to private firms to carry the project forward.

And some provincial legislators question the way that
public funds are used to finance the plan. The money comes from
a special federal tax on fuels.

But for now, these challenges do not appear to endanger the
ambitious project.

Gallino, the cattle rancher, said he hopes it is concluded
as soon as possible. "We have been fighting for this kind of
project for many years," he said.