Illegal mining, pollution, and urbanization choke Latin America’s waters

Americas Editorial, Sep 24 (EFE).- The Latin American river waters that run through the region’s vastness supplying life to communities are distant cousins and rarely meet. However, they share the threats that have in check the area with more freshwater worldwide, such as illegal mining, pollution, and urbanization.

This Sunday is World Rivers Day, and although Latin America has about 31% of the world’s water sources, with such essential river arteries as Amazon, Orinoco, Río de la Plata, and Magdalena, human activities pollute, modify, and hinder the water.

Effects on human health, alteration of ecological functions, reduction of biological diversity, and damage to aquatic habitats are some of the consequences of water pollution.

Illegal mining and mercury

The Amazon, the most extensive river in the world at 6,997 kilometers (4347.7 miles), is Brazil’s main waterway.

Although it rises in Peru and passes through Colombia, its course prevails in the Brazilian Amazon, where it is an essential source of life: some 50 million people depend on its waters, including more than half of the country’s indigenous people (some 890,000, according to the 2022 census).

According to Rodrigo Leão de Moura, a biologist and professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), mercury contamination caused by illegal mining is the most significant concern in the basin today, telling EFE that it “can even cause malformation of fetuses” and “a problem for the miners themselves because mercury vapor is highly toxic.

According to a study by WWF-Brazil, between 1994 and 2022, some 2,300 tons of the metal have been dumped in the Amazon River. In recent years, it is estimated that it is receiving, on average, some 150 tons a year that affect the nervous system, digestive tract, immune system, lungs, and kidneys, among others.

Meanwhile, for the Paraná and the São Francisco, other of Brazil’s largest and most important rivers, the impact has been caused by “intense” urbanization and industrialization processes, sewage, and toxic waste discharges, says the expert.

The Orinoco, another of the region’s most important waterways, shares with the Amazon the threat of illegal mining and the use of mercury, deforestation, and the dumping of domestic and commercial waste, according to the Amazon Research Group (Griam).

“One of the most notable damages on the Orinoco River, mainly, is the dumping of mercury, since it contaminates its waters, poisons its fish, and consequently, severely affects the health of the people (…) especially the indigenous populations whose livelihoods are related to this river,” the director of this group, Luis Betancourt, explained to EFE.

In addition, there are no protection plans for the Orinoco River, at least along its course through the Venezuelan state of Amazonas. This situation worries organizations and environmentalists who, like Griam, do not have sufficient resources to develop conservation plans.


The Magdalena River is Colombia’s most important waterway: with 1,525 kilometers, 886 of which are navigable, it crosses the country from south to north and “historically has been the country’s main means of transportation and development,” said Ana Carolina Santos, a researcher at the Humboldt Institute’s Center for Socio-Ecological Studies and Global Change.

Its idiosyncrasy is marked by a high presence of organizations – more than 300 fishing associations – and an even higher presence of hydroelectric dams, with some 33 in operation, according to data from the Javeriana University, which “cause loss of water connectivity of the rivers with their main tributaries.”

Socio-environmental conflicts do not escape any Colombian river. Still, several rulings have declared the Atrato, Cauca, and Magdalena rivers as “subject of rights,” granting them unprecedented protection and recognition.

According to Santos, the Magdalena, which cannot be spoken of without considering the Cauca river, has as its primary threat pollution, primarily caused by discharges from the Bogotá river into its course.

In the case of the Cauca, which originates in the same páramo, illegal mining chokes its course: “Many heavy metals are found, not only mercury, which there is already scientific evidence that are affecting diversity,” concludes Santos.

At the southern end of the region, the Matanza Riachuelo River, whose waters flow into the Río de la Plata after covering an area of 2,047 square kilometers where 4.7 million people live, 10 % of the Argentine population, is the most polluted in Argentina.

The Matanza-Riachuelo Basin Authority (Acumar) points out that 70% of the leading causes of pollution in the basin are sewage effluents. In comparison, the remaining 30% correspond, among other reasons, to urban solid waste and industrial liquid effluents.

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