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Governments Bordering Rio de la Plata System Heading Toward Agreement on Channels

It’s no humble ambition: to make the Rio de la Plata river system become to South America what the Mississippi is to North America.

But first the countries that border it must move past a decade of political stalemate and get on with the dredging.
Rio de la Plata, the mammoth, sea-like estuary whose shores are home to Argentine capital Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, is fed by two main tributaries: the Paraná River, which runs northward through Argentina and eventually becomes its border with Paraguay; and the Uruguay River, which curves to the northeast, creating borders between Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

Both rivers run through fertile agricultural land, and are studded with small ports tasked with exporting the region’s grains, minerals and oil. But those exports have been limited by the shallow depth of the rivers and the channels through Rio de la Plata - limits that both countries hope to finally overcome this year.

It has long been a goal of South American trade agreements to open up the river system, making the transportation of bulk goods more efficient and boosting the economies of not just Argentina and Uruguay, but Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. These goals have been stymied by years of failed negotiations, but recent agreements signal that this may finally change in 2012: the countries are soliciting bids for a dredging contract on the channels through Rio de la Plata, expansion is already occurring on the Paraná River, and will begin this year on the Uruguay River.

The largest – and most politically sticky – of the projects is the re-dredging of the Martin Garcia Channel, one of the two deep waterways that cut through the otherwise shallow Rio de la Plata. (See map on page 18.) The Martin Garcia Channel is the entry to the Uruguay River. Its counterpart, the Emilio Mitre channel, accesses the Paraná River from the Buenos Aires entrance channel.

Despite its proximity to Uruguay, the 106-kilometer (66-mile) Martin Garcia Channel is overseen by the bi-national body of Argentina and Uruguay called the Rio de la Plata Administrator Commission (CARP), created in the 1970s. Over the last century, the waterway has been periodically dredged to various depths, but some sections were so narrow that only one ship could pass at a time, causing long waits for passage. Finally, in the 1990s CARP hired a private consortium to expand and then operate the channel at a depth of 32 feet. That consortium, made up of seven international dredging companies, fell apart during the operation/maintenance phase, when Uruguay and Argentina failed to make payments during a recession.

Riovia S.A., a subsidiary of Dutch dredging giant Boskalis International B.V., now maintains the channel, in a contract scheduled to expire in January of this year. For the initial construction, they used the cutter suction dredge Amazone and the hopper dredge HAM 311. For the maintenance phase, they have used the hopper dredge Beachway.

For nearly a decade, Uruguay has been eager to dredge the Martin Garcia channel to a greater depth. As it stands, large ships coming from the country’s main grain port, Nueva Palmira, must travel only partially loaded, or must wait for a particularly high tide, because of the limited capacity of the channel.

Meanwhile, Argentina has resisted re-dredging the Martin Garcia Channel, using the issue as a point of leverage in other controversies, including a high-profile and acrimonious battle over the right to build a pulp mill on the Uruguay River. Meanwhile, Argentina has expanded the Mitre Channel, which it has sole control over, to 34 feet, encouraging many ships to detour through that channel because of its greater capacity. This caused Uruguayan officials to accuse Argentina of jeopardizing the economic health of the region for their own benefit.

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Juan Jose Dominguez, vice president of Uruguay’s National Administration of Ports (ANP), of the lengthy delays. “The clients aren’t happy; the agriculture industries are obviously looking for help. But in Argentina, they aren’t thinking about the region, they’re thinking about one country only.”

A resolution to the longstanding stalemate was finally hammered out by the presidents of the two countries last year, and in October, an agreement was signed allowing the Martin Garcia channel to be dredged to 34 feet, with the option to dredge to 36 feet within two years if the Mitre Channel is dredged to that depth. In December, CARP officials announced that four firms had taken the first steps in the bidding process, including Dredging International N.V., Van Oord Dredging and Marine Contractors B.V., Jan de Nul Group N.V., and Boskalis International B.V.

A spokesman for CARP said he could not discuss the details of the project’s timeline because it was not yet clear, and declined to answer further questions because of the delicate nature of the agreement. However, Dominguez said the goal is to begin dredging by the end of 2012.

“That’s only an estimate, but we are all hoping it will happen that way,” Dominguez said.

Expanding the Uruguay River Channel

Meanwhile, both countries plan to make their rivers more navigable this year. Uruguay owns a small fleet of dredges, and expects to spend about between $50 million and $60 million this year on another larger dredge, the specifications of which they have not yet decided. With those dredges and a contract with a private partner, they plan to expand the Uruguay River between Nueva Palmiras and Fray Bentos – a 95 kilometer (59 mile) stretch - to 30 feet, and from there to Paysandú – another 110 kilometers (68 miles) - to 19 feet. Paysandú is home to a large brewery and barley malting plant, and the waterway’s expansion will allow it to produce more, Dominguez said.

Further upstream, the wide river becomes the border between Argentina and Brazil; some of its tributaries come from Paraguay and Bolivia, Dominguez said. He said the river could become a major viaduct for goods from those countries as well.

“There are many advantages for the region,” Dominguez said. “If we have a depth of 34-feet in the Garcia Martin Channel, and of 30 feet in the Uruguay River, then we can completely fill ships with grains, wheat, corn, the riches that come from Bolivia and Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay, all through the Uruguay River.”

Paraná River Deepening

The Argentinians have similar goals for their Paraná River, whose channel is now being expanded by Jan de Nul Group subsidary Hidrovía S.A.

Dr. Marcelo Ercoli, an attorney in charge of dredge concessions for Argentina’s ports, said the Paraná project, which extends a 12-foot waterway some 650 kilometers (404 miles) further up the river than it has previously been dredged, is expected to nurture the economy of the entire region. The expansion began last August and should be completed in March.

Jan de Nul Group (JDNG) has long been involved in Argentina’s dredging projects. In 1995, the group won a concession to dredge the entrance and Mitre Channels from the Atlantic Ocean to the Paraná River, and up that river to the port of Santa Fe – a total of 1,200 kilometers (746 miles), according to Jan de Nul spokeswoman Heleen Schellinck. The contract is paid by levying tolls on the ships navigating the river.

In 2005, the maintenance depth through the Mitre Channel and up the Paraná to the port city of Rosario increased to 34 feet, and the depth between Rosario and Santa Fe was increased to 25 feet. They are now in talks to further expand the waterway, to 36 feet and 28 feet respectively. A final agreement on the scope of this project should be reached this year, according to Schellink.

12-Foot Upriver Channel

Meanwhile, Jan de Nul is working on the expansion upriver, a concession they were awarded in 2010. The project will create the 12-foot waterway from Santa Fe to Corrientes, near the confluence of the rivers Paraná and Paraguay.

Hidrovia is using an extensive fleet for the work, including the shallow-draft, 3,600-cubic-meter-capacity hopper dredge James Ensor; the split hull, 3,400-cubic-meter hopper dredge Niña; the hopper dredge Capitán Nuñez, which was designed for the Rio de la Plata, and has a loaded draft of 6.85 meters and hopper capacity of 6,000 cubic meters; the 4,400-cubic-meter Francesco Di Giorgio, designed with a shallow draft of 7.3 meters, and for quiet operation to protect sea life; and the 3,400-cubic-meter Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca, with a draft of five meters, designed for high maneuverability in shallow, confined areas.

All of those vessels belong to Jan de Nul, with the exception of the Capitán Nuñez, which is owned by the Argentine government but that Jan de Nul has refurbished. By the time the project is complete, some 600,000 cubic meters (784,800 cubic yards) of silt and clay will be dredged from the river and deposited to an approved placement area. Between the dredging, signalization, and traffic control, some 500 people are employed in the concession, which lasts through 2021.

In response to the dredging, several small ports along the northern Paraná are in the process of expanding so they can handle the barges that they expect to begin populating the river, according to Ercoli. The region is rich in grain, cotton, fish, minerals and gas, and the barges will transport those products, as well as the occasional shipment of container goods in and out of the region.
“It will be just like your Mississippi in the United States,” said Ercoli.

Though Northern Argentina will see the most immediate gains from this project, the river is expected to be used to transport products to and from its nearby neighbors, the landlocked countries of Paraguay and Bolivia.

“The project is exclusively Argentina’s, but it’s a project that, in addition to improving our economy, will help the economies of Bolivia and Paraguay – the entire region,” he said.

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