RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – After the Uruguayan government’s announcement to dredge the access channel to the Port of Montevideo to a depth of 14 meters, Argentina reacted with a letter from the president of the Argentine delegation to the Administrative Commission of the Río de la Plata (CARP) Diego Tettamanti, in which he warns that Uruguay is only authorized to dredge up to 13 meters.
Uruguay’s response was given in two communiqués from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warning that two Argentine mega-projects in the Río de la Plata (Magdalena Channel and Underwater Outfall) still depend on Uruguay’s decisions in the CARP.
On December 14th, the Uruguayan National Ports Administration (ANP), the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, and the National Development Corporation signed a framework agreement for an international call for bids to dredge the access channel to the Port of Montevideo from 12 to 14 meters.
For the Minister of Transport and Public Works Luis Alberto Heber, this would be the most important work for the Port of Montevideo. “For me, it is a before and after because it positions us in an unparalleled way. No port in the region can have as much depth as Montevideo would have in the channel we want to build,” he said.
In the letter of March 25th addressed to the Uruguayan delegation president, Alem García Tettamanti states that “Uruguay never presented a deepening project to -14m. Therefore, Argentina never had to make a statement on that depth. There is no record of any Uruguayan proposal to consider any depth other than -13 m during the whole approval process.”
He then details Uruguay’s documentation from 2014 when the procedure was initiated until 2018 when approved, detailing that the steps were made for 13 meters.
He further states that “for the case that Uruguay wanted to totally or partially modify the sizing of the new approved channel exceeding the -13 m, this would become a new project which would lead to starting a new consultation process again.”
Foreign Minister Francisco Bustillo spoke about this issue in an interview in El Espectador on April 9.
“We are talking about faits accomplis that we inherited from the previous administration. Clearly, Uruguay, at a certain point in time, had the aspiration to dredge the access channel to the Port of Montevideo to 14 meters. When the plan was presented to society, they spoke of 13 meters. That is where the confusion begins. All this happened during the previous administration. Today, when Uruguay graciously talks about 14 meters, Argentina says, ‘listen, look, we studied for 13 meters’. Today what we did was to present our concern about going to 14 meters,” the foreign minister pointed out.
If the Magdalena Channel is put into operation, it will give the Port of Buenos Aires direct access to the ocean. Today, access to Buenos Aires’ port is through the Punta Indio Channel, a binational channel with Uruguay. This work implies an investment of millions of dollars since it involves dredging 53 kilometers with a width of 200 meters and going from 4.5 meters deep to 12 meters.
This would affect Uruguay in two aspects. The first is to know whether Argentina will be interested in maintaining the Punta Indio channel or whether Uruguay will have to take on maintaining the dredging on its own. The second is that since the Punta Indio channel is a one-way channel, Uruguay sells services to ships waiting to enter the channel. These services would no longer be provided.
The Treaty of the Río de la Plata and its Maritime Front provides that all works that one of the countries wants to carry out must be communicated within the CARP framework and not be objected to by the other party.
In June 2018, the Minister of Transport of the Frente Amplio government Victor Rossi announced that Argentina had enabled Uruguay to dredge the access channel to 14 meters. Uruguay enabled Argentina to carry out the Magdalena Channel.
“The Chancellery of the Republic, which was at the forefront of the necessary negotiation process, established the conditions for the authorization of the Magdalena Channel by Uruguay and authorized the deepening up to 14 meters of the access channels to the Port of Montevideo”, he said.
The Uruguayan response
The April 6th communiqués from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are not an explicit response to Tettamanti’s letter within the CARP scope, but they mark the Uruguayan position regarding the negotiation on this issue.
They explain that Argentina depends on the Uruguayan authorization to complete the Magdalena Channel and the completion of the Underwater Emissary. The tone of the communiqués is based on the actions that Uruguay could take in these projects.
Regarding the Magdalena Canal, the communiqué reviewed the authorization process in 2014 and ended in 2018.
It argues that “Uruguay in the framework of the Treaty of the Río de la Plata and its Maritime Front takes special consideration of the instruments established in said Treaty” and reviews the articles related to environmental issues.
The first one it reviews is Article 20 where it says that “the notified Party shall have the right to inspect the works being carried out to verify whether they are following the project submitted.”
Article 51 states that “each Party shall be liable to the other Party for damage caused by pollution resulting from its own activities or those of natural or juridical persons domiciled in its territory.”
The Argentine authorities have already initiated the bidding process. The day after the press releases, they called for the first public hearing on the Magdalena Canal on May 7, a requirement established in that country’s General Environmental Law.
The underwater outfall is a work being carried out by the Argentine government. It is the final stage of the Riachuelo System, a project that will allow the sewage of four and a half million inhabitants and thousands of industries to be discharged into the Río de la Plata. It is a 12 and a half kilometer long pipe, four meters and 30 centimeters in diameter, which enters the common area of the river, in front of the department of Colonia.
The communiqué from the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry reviews the 2009 authorization procedures and recognizes that Uruguay gave its approval for the work to be carried out. But it maintains that with the change of leadership in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July 2020, it was instructed to carry out a follow-up policy for the binational rivers.
In December last year, the Uruguayan delegation to CARP requested environmental information on the project from its Argentine counterpart and asked for a meeting with the authorities of Agua y Saneamientos Argentinos S.A. (AySA).
The communiqué ends by saying that “these control and monitoring actions are and will continue to be carried out under the parameters established in the Treaty of the Río de la Plata and its Maritime Front.”
Chancellor Bustillo said they are not acting in response to the Argentine letter denying dredging to 14 meters.
“Obviously, it would never be appropriate, nor have we ever done so, nor will we ever do so, to air Uruguay’s negotiating strategy. It would be nonsense. But clearly, we do not act out of reaction; we act out of conviction in defense of national interests. And clearly, this is part of the national interest: to achieve that deepening to 14 meters”, he stated.