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Climate adaptation practices – Lighthouse case study in Argentina’s Paraná Delta

Summary

The Paraná Delta has long been a territory of slow-onset transformations, despite its proximity to major cities. However, in recent decades it has come under increasing pressure from accelerated changes in land use, notably the unfettered expansion of cities, while enduring the consequences of the rapid rise of industrial agriculture in Argentina (notably soybeans), that have tended to displace cattle production to the delta, among other areas. Climate-change impacts such as floods, droughts, fire outbreaks, and the hydrologic effects of sea-level rise contribute to heightened vulnerability in the delta. However, national response to climate change is providing a framework for action to protect it. This links wetland conservation programs with Argentina’s efforts to establish its low emissions long-term climate strategy, meet the objectives of its Second Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement, and implement its National Adaptation Plan. ‘Conservation lighthouses’ could be the start of a more systematic response to support climate change adaptation.

This weADAPT case study is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

The Paraná Delta

The Paraná is the most important river of the La Plata basin, which is second only to the Amazon basin in South America in terms of its size, length, and water discharge. A huge mosaic of highly heterogenous wetland systems, it covers 22,587 square kilometers and is part of the widespread wetland system of Argentina, which in total covers about 600,000 square kilometers—more than one-fifth of the country. The delta’s hydrology is determined by the streamflow of the Paraná, Gualeguay and Uruguay rivers, tidal and storm surges from the Río de la Plata estuary, and local rainfall— which in turn is influenced by the El Niño and La Niña weather systems. Over the last several decades, the construction of more than 150 hydroelectric power dams has transformed the upper section of the Paraná river basin and its tributaries into a succession of lakes, affecting its flow, discharge, and ecology.

The Paraná Delta is subject to natural pulses of floods and droughts, which are one of its distinctive characteristics. Climate change and land-use changes are affecting the delta, primarily by increasing the occurrence of those pulses, altering erosion and sedimentation processes, and increasing the frequency and intensity of storm surges. The delta is located close to important cities and metropolitan areas, such as Gran Rosario, Santa Fe, and Buenos Aires, with its 14 million inhabitants. Before the 16th century, diverse indigenous groups were settled in the Paraná Delta, but after Spanish colonization, the lands were occupied through immigration flows of Spanish and criollos (people of Spanish descent born in Latin America) in dispersed and mostly precarious settlements. By the late 19th century, the population settled in the delta was engaged primarily in fruit cultivation, supplying the nearby cities, as well as fishing, hunting, and later on forestry and small-scale livestock production. In the 1960s, a series of floods and frosts devastated plantations and caused mass migration to nearby cities in search of stable employment. A new development model for the delta was then adopted as a consequence of the deployment of a supposedly long-term (but shortlived) national development strategy aimed at fostering basic industry (steel, cement, aluminum, pulp and paper). The consequent change in the scale of forestry production led to the construction of ditches and levees, which progressively altered the landscape, especially in the Lower Delta area.

Since the mid-1990s, a process of rapid land-use change has taken place. The adoption of innovative technologies and a new business model in agriculture, in conjunction with patterns of markedly higher precipitation, resulted in a vast expansion of agricultural production in the Pampas, displacing livestock production from traditionally cattle raising areas to other areas, including the Paraná Delta. Additionally, the unplanned growth of cities in proximity to the delta has led to the development of new urbanization typologies, such as gated communities, with privately developed flood protection schemes, that adversely affect surrounding areas. 

Delta Conservation and the Paris Climate Agenda

By the early 2000s, it was clear that the expansion of agriculture, forestry, and livestock production, as well as the increase of gated communities and other private developments, was undermining the sustainability of the delta system. In 2008, these trends converged in an environmental emergency: a severe drought and the systematic use of fires to eliminate vegetation that had no forage value for livestock led to the loss of at least 11 percent of the land cover in just one year.

These circumstances prompted the National Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development to seek a new inter-jurisdictional consensus on environmental planning. The federal government and three provincial authorities developed the ‘Integral Strategic Plan for the Sustainable Management and Conservation of the Paraná Delta Region’ (Plan Integral Estratégico para la Conservación y Aprovechamiento Sostenible del Delta del Paraná, PIECAS-DP).

PIECAS-DP is the only comprehensive plan ever conceived for the delta. It establishes guiding principles for risk management, environmental conservation, and sustainable economic development. A strategic environmental assessment and a baseline study were carried out in 201130, followed in 2014 by the dissemination of guidelines and recommendations, with each province setting out its own vision.

In 2015, a change of policies under a new national administration curtailed implementation of the PIECAS-DP for four years. In 2020, the accession to power of the previous administration promoted the plan’s renaissance. In addition, a severe drought combined with a widespread and massive number of fire outbreaks led the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development to declare a state of emergency in the region and prohibit the use of fire for productive activities for 180 days, reinforcing the rationale for a strategic approach in the delta.

Severe environmental impacts throughout 2020 also prompted the same ministry to update the PIECAS-DP. This time, the plan gained momentum from being reconfigured in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda 2030 and Argentina’s climate policy, including on adaptation. 

Further, there is a focus on using nature-based solutions in the design and implementation of adaptation actions. In terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, Argentina’s ability to meet its revised Nationally Determined Contribution will depend on its ability to limit deforestation, forest degradation and fires, promote absorption by carbon sinks and preserve carbon sequestration by wetlands, including large peatlands and both marine and riverine wetlands. In our view, action to conserve the Paraná Delta has a vital role to play in contributing to the success of Argentina’s long-term decarbonization pathways. The Paraná Delta is still one of the world’s least disturbed delta systems, and remains highly efficient in sequestering carbon in its soil and biomass. 

The Conservation Lighthouses Network Program

As part of the first phase of the relaunched plan, in 2020 the government created and launched the Conservation Lighthouses Network (CLN) program, with defined work plans and committed human and financial resources. This program consists of the creation of operational bases for environmental management and extension, such as the early detection of fires, prevention, control and involvement under situations of high environmental risk, and other conservation and ecosystems management interventions.

A ‘conservation lighthouse’ is defined as a ‘base with permanent scientific and technical personnel, equipped with boats, vehicles, drones, control systems, weather station, communication and environmental monitoring equipment35.’ A network of these lighthouses is now being created across the delta—mostly (but not exclusively) in National Parks, under the scope of the National Parks Administration and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

Specifically, the national and provincial governments signed formal agreements to establish conservation lighthouses in the National Parks of Pre-Delta (Entre Ríos), Islas de Santa Fe (Santa Fe), Ciervo de Los Pantanos (Buenos Aires), and the Municipality of Villa Constitución (Santa Fe) including its Isla del Sol nature reserve. Agreements are in progress for the Biosphere Reserve of San Fernando (San Fernando, province of Buenos Aires) and the Isla Botija (Zárate, province of Buenos Aires). The agreements address the need to preserve natural and cultural heritage, recover degraded ecosystems, develop scientific research, and engage local people to strengthen their knowledge on the impact of fire.

The CLN program’s objectives are to prevent, detect and control not only fires, but also other illegal activities. These include poaching, irregular construction and unsustainable production practices which may lead to wetland and biodiversity loss and water and soil pollution. The program aims to strategically link communities, civil-society organizations, scientific institutes, universities, and different jurisdictions to protect natural resources and cultural heritage, as well as support sustainable socioeconomic activities.

The CLN program directly includes local inhabitants, empowering them as ‘delta guardians’ through training activities and knowledge transfer to improve their socio-economic situation. The program includes the launch of local sustainable development and training projects for island communities (called PADAS37), with funding provided by the National Parks Administration.

Although it is still in the very early stages of development, the program has already registered a significant success in getting this far: it has generated the political will to overcome the longstanding obstacles to co-operation between different levels of government and civil society.

Scalability and replicability

There is high potential for scalability and replicability, as the plan calls for a network of conservation lighthouses (based on the concept of ‘Ecological Networks’), so it can be expanded. The lighthouses can be in National Parks or other protected areas not necessarily under national supervision. The program could also be implemented in other deltas, and eventually beyond wetland areas, oriented to local problems as circumstances require—from fires to floods, erosion or salinity control. The Paraná Delta is not the only territory of Argentina that is experiencing the impacts of unsustainable production practices, extended land-use changes and climate change. Similar issues are affecting Santa Fe, Buenos Aires, Entre Ríos, Córdoba, San Luis, Salta, Tucumán, Corrientes, Misiones, La Rioja, Chaco, and Catamarca. All these provinces have preserved areas in which conservation lighthouses could be established if the budget can be found and the various governments agree on the principles. Furthermore, there is a political will to discourage unsustainable and uncontrolled practices in the territory, such as intentional fires. The Law N° 27604/20 recently modified the Law of Fire Management (N°26815/13), establishing that burnt lands will not be allowed to change their use, be divided or sold for 60 years.

Conclusion

Wetlands are disappearing all over the world. Over the decades, well-intentioned efforts to develop the Paraná Delta have reflected a lack of understanding about their inherent value. Today, this value is increasingly well understood: wetlands are important carbon sinks and help to address the impacts of climate change. Wetland areas should bring together and make consistent the conversations on climate-change adaptation and mitigation policy, and integrated water management plans. Land-use planning and water management should be informed by the periodic development of updated hydrological scenarios to include changes in precipitation, sea levels and sediment dynamics39. The experience in the Paraná Delta also shows that work to preserve the unique biogeographic and ecological characteristics of a wetland ecosystem requires careful consideration of local social-cultural factors. In the Argentinean context, the Paraná Delta is being transformed even though its importance and ecological functions are better understood than those in other wetlands, which makes the latter more vulnerable to anthropic transformation and to rapidly increasing impacts of climate change.

About this case study

The case study on Argentina was authored by Hernán Carlino (independent environmental services professional) and Dr. Verónica M.E. Zagare (Wing Coordinator, Delta Alliance). It was reviewed by Eng. Daniel Somma (President National Parks Administration) and Lucas Di Pietro Paolo, Lic. (Coordination of Adaptation to Climate Change, Secretariat of Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Innovation, Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development).

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