The water is redrawing maps, giving rise to new rivers and drowning everything in its path: cows, fields, roads, and villages. This rare hydrological phenomenon could also threaten gauchos, the country’s legendary cattlemen.
"We woke up one morning and there was mud everywhere, as far as the eye could see. Everything was glistening around the house, like a mirror. It looked like a beach at low tide," Nora Luna Bosco said, drawing nervously on her cigarette.
The scene was far from picturesque: "It made you want to scream with rage," her husband Daniel Bosco added, his eyes fixed on the river that appeared smack in the middle of their property, literally cutting it in two.
The Boscos work on 150 hectares of the Pampas in the province of San Luis, in the heart of Argentina. In a single night in September 2015, they lost two-thirds of their land under more than a metre of mud. Only their home and a meagre cornfield were spared. Yet, when they bought this property 20 years ago, San Luis was a semi-arid province.
Today, 373,000 hectares of the province (nearly 5%) are under water. And that's only the tip of the iceberg: all of these vast and fertile grassy lowlands, known as the Pampas, are in the eye of the storm. "Flooding is the greatest natural disaster threatening Argentina. It accounts for 60% of current disasters and 95% of economic losses," the World Bank recently wrote in a report on the state of the Argentinian environment.
Yet, "the last decade was not particularly wet, it was rather average," Esteban Jobbagy, a researcher at CONICET (the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina) said. So where is all this water coming from?
With the support of Canadian funding from the International Development Research Centre, Jobbagy and his team travelled across the entire Pampas, from north to south, to find the water’s source.
The pool overflows
Their conclusion? The province of San Luis is facing the dizzying rise of the water table. Deforested and devoted almost exclusively to the monoculture of transgenic corn and soy, the region's predominantly flat soil no longer absorbs water. The slightest rain submerges everything.
More than temporary floods, the rise in the water tables causes the rapid and unpredictable arrival of lakes and watercourses that no longer recede. As they form, they carry impressive quantities of sediment.
"It's like a pool filling up and then, at a certain point, it begins to overflow. The water carries the earth, the sediment, and everything in its path," Osvaldo Barbosa said. He is the agricultural engineer at the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) that teamed up with Jobbagy.
This rare phenomenon is called "sapping". Some parts of the Grand Canyon in the United States developed this way, as did some dry rivers on Mars. But San Luis is the only place in the world where this phenomenon can be witnessed in action.
The water is rising everywhere, even in urban areas where it is causing a health crisis. In the province's poorest neighbourhood, which bears the name of national idol Eva Perón, the phenomenon is undeniable. Water invades everything, spreading the contents of the sewer system.
"In front of my house, the water table is 12 cm [below the ground's surface]. A truck drove right in there last week," Jimena Robira said, pointing to the stretch of gray water where the waste floats in front of her home.
A stench surrounds the area. "We have very small children. Even if we never let them out of our sight, they get away sometimes and they go play in it," her neighbour, Carina Soto, added disgustedly.
At the end of their ropes, the mothers of families in the neighbourhood were the first to take to the streets to demand government intervention. Faced with the scale of the disaster, the province of San Luis declared a state of environmental emergency in May 2016. It then passed a law requiring owners to devote 5% of their land to reforestation. To date, it is the only province in Argentina to have adopted such a law.
Everywhere, along the roads, in parks, and in public squares, tree planters are at work. Poplar, ash, elm, willow, acacia, pine — the province plans to plant 6 million trees within five years. At the end of the first year, when Québec Science visited, more than 700,000 trees had been planted.
But "this story of trees, it's a public relations stunt by the governor," Jobbagy said. At the wheel of his pickup, he frowns, stopping at the roadside where tree planters are digging holes, twigs in the corner of their mouths. "The governor wants to show that he is doing something to solve the problem," the researcher said, grumbling. "But, based on the current situation, trees would have to be planted on more than half of the province's acreage for reforestation to have a real impact." And that's not all. In addition to lowering the water table, soil salinization is a concern. The water from underground carries a large quantity of salts, whose deposits make the land unsuitable for cultivation.
It's like a pool filling up and then, at a certain point, it begins to overflow. The water carries the earth, the sediment, and everything in its path. - Osvaldo Barbosa
What remains of Daniel Bosco's operation is representative of the tragedy: a vast stretch of washed, salty, unworkable land littered with cattle carcasses. No fewer than 80 of his 150 cows perished in the mud. "It was impossible to free them. We had to euthanize several of them so they wouldn't suffer," he explained. The corn and sorghum fields, newly rolled alfalfa bales, 200 of their 250 beehives, kilometres and kilometres of pasture fencing and a secondary house… All are gone.
The river that divides the Bosco farm hasn’t swelled, but at any moment it could once again become a torrent of mud. "We could lose our home at any moment. You can't imagine how desperate we are," Nora Luna Bosco confided.
Mini Grand Canyon
The Boscos' ordeal isn’t over yet. Heading back up the river that is consuming their property, you discover an actual canyon.
The nearly 40m deep chasm developed right under the nose of Alberto Panza, whose land is just a few kilometres from the Bosco farm. The cattle farmer lost 150 of his 480 hectares of pasture. "The water started to flow one Sunday. I remember it well because we were celebrating my wife's birthday," the cattle farmer with an agricultural engineering background said, pointing to the surreal landscape surrounding him.
"There was a hard rain, a deluge. The water swept away the entrance to the property and dug a crevice. It was very dramatic," Panza said.
The river that now flows at the base of the canyon has been dubbed Rio Nuevo (New River), and it's constantly being discussed in the media. In addition to swallowing the fields and animals in its path, Rio Nuevo split the nation’s route 7 — a vital South American transport route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Argentina and Chile — in two.
If it’s impossible to eliminate the Rio Nuevo, the province of San Luis hopes to prevent the formation of other rivers of this scale through massive reforestation. The short-term objective is to restore the soil with roots that will counter erosion, and lowering the water table by planting water-intensive species, explains agronomist Agustin Pitavino, the man the State has entrusted with the titanic task of planting 6 million trees.
"So far it's been a success; 90% of the plants have rooted," Alejandro Pedernera, a planting supervisor met along the roadside, explained.
Lagging behind, Jobbagy has a puzzled look as he swallows an alfalfa leaf plucked from a stray plant along the roadside. He believes this small green leaf could be a solution to the problem looming before him: an immense soybean field stretching as far as the eye can see behind the tiny, freshly planted trees. "There's no point hiding the fields behind the trees if we don't change our agricultural model, how we use the soil," he said.
The scientist has an appreciation for the other aspect of San Luis’ emergency law, which imposed crop rotation. It was his research group that convinced the governor to introduce this measure. Farmers are now prohibited from planting corn and soy year after year because these species don’t absorb enough water. Now farmers have to alternate these with others crops like sunflower, rye, or wheat. They are also prohibited from leaving the soil bare in the winter: they must plant cover crops, such as alfalfa, to protect the soil and ensure the water’s continuous absorption.
The return of the gaucho
To regenerate the soil and protect it long term, the CONICET and INTA teams also advocate a return to extensive cattle grazing. This is a traditional practice of the Pampas, one that contributed to the myth of the gaucho, the region’s cowboy herdsman.
"Throughout Argentina in the 1980s we alternated between 50% grazing and 50% agriculture. There was almost no fertilization because the soil was naturally regenerated by livestock," Jobbagy explained. "In the 1990s, the price of soy skyrocketed and agricultural technology took a leap forward with “Roundup Ready” soybeans [Editor's note: a genetically modified seed that is resistant to an herbicide called glyphosate]. As a result, the price of meat plummeted and we converted to 100% agriculture."
Traditional livestock has therefore almost disappeared, because it has become much more profitable to plant soy to feed pigs and poultry. Today, cattle are confined to feedlots, where large volumes of meat are quickly produced in small areas. Consequently, soybeans occupy much more space than cows, both in the fields and in the country's trade.
According to the World Bank, beef accounts for no more than 5% of Argentina's exports, while soy accounts for 28%. In order to plant it, 20% of Argentina's forest area was cleared between 1990 and 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The phenomenon is even concerning the World Bank, which fears for the health of Argentina's natural environments. "The structural shift from traditional grazing to intensive soybean farming has exacerbated the negative impact on the country's natural assets. This structural shift has led to large-scale environmental consequences," the World Bank wrote in a 2016 report, citing deforestation, soil, and water contamination from pesticides and floods.
But the return to cattle rearing is a long and costly transition. While a farmer could switch from cattle to soy farming within a year, it takes a minimum of five years to do the reverse because it takes much longer to turn a profit from a calf than it does from a soybean. The financial risk is therefore much greater, Jobbagy explained. He believes the State should offer major financial incentives for cattle farming, such as credits to purchase livestock.
"The challenge is a political one. It requires producers, citizens, and governments to accept the reality, one that requires a vision and creative solutions," the scientist said. Now that he has documented and understood the problem, Jobbagy devotes his work to searching for solutions to guide decision-makers.
"The politicians are always blaming it on the climate, but that's not the case. They say this to avoid admitting that they didn't do their job, that they weren't thinking long-term. And now we’re feeling nature’s wrath," Nora Luna Bosco said.