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Argentina and Uruguay Reach Agreement for Emergency Dredging

The Uruguayan National Port Authority (ANP) began dredging emergency dredging in the Martin Garcia channel with the 3,000-cubicmeter (3,924-cubic-yard) suction hopper dredge Alfredo Labadie, informally called D-9.

The Uruguayan National Port Authority (ANP) began dredging emergency dredging in the Martin Garcia channel with the 3,000-cubicmeter (3,924-cubic-yard) suction hopper dredge Alfredo Labadie, informally called D-9.

Argentina and Uruguay have put aside years of political rancor – at least temporarily – over the channel they share custody of and began to dredge its shallowest points after at least four ships touched bottom while traversing it.

The 106-kilometer (about 66-mile) Martin Garcia channel cuts through the Rio de la Plata, a wide estuary that separates the two South American nations. The channel is closer – and much more economically essential – to Uruguay. But a 1970’s agreement gave the two countries joint governance of the channel, and Argentina has stood in the way of Uruguay’s aspirations to dredge the channel deeper. Uruguayan officials have accused the Argentine government of holding up the dredging in order to give more business to Argentine ports, a charge that Argentine officials have denied.

In August, the two nations were forced to put aside their differences after four ships ran aground in the channel. They are in the process of dredging the problem areas to guarantee safe transit. The longer-term plans for dredging the waterway are still undetermined.

Two deep channels cut through the turbid, shallow sea of Rio de la Plata. The natural Martin Garcia hugs the coast of Uruguay and is the entrance channel to the capital port in Montevideo, as well as dozens of other ports along the Uruguayan coast. It leads to the outlet of the Paraná, Paraguay and Uruguay river systems, which in turn are home dozens of other ports in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay. The second channel, the artificial Emilio Mitre, follows along the Argentine coast of the estuary, and its dredging maintenance is solely the responsibility of Argentina.

That is not the case for Martin Garcia. In the 1970s a binational agency was created to oversee the maintenance of the natural channel. That agency, the Rio de la Plata Administrative Commission (CARP), can only act with the approval of both nations. In the 1990s, CARP hired a private consortium to widen the channel and dredge it to 32 feet, but the consortium stopped maintaining that depth after Uruguay and Argentina failed to pay on time during a recession.

In the late 1990s, Riovia S.A., a subsidiary of Dutch dredging company Boskalis International B.V., was given a 15-year contract to maintain the channel. It initially deepened the channel with cutter suction dredge Amazone and trailing suction dredge HAM 311, and maintained that depth using trailing suction hopper dredge Beachway.

Meanwhile, Uruguay spent more than a decade advocating for the expansion of the Martin Garcia. Argentina used Uruguay’s desire for a deeper channel as leverage in other political controversies, including a disagreement over the right to build a pump mill on the Uruguay River. Meanwhile, Argentina expanded the depth of the Mitre channel to 34 feet, which encouraged ships to detour through that channel and call on more Argentine ports. Uruguayan officials accused Argentina of jeopardizing the economic health of Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil for its own benefit.

As negotiations have dragged on, Uruguay’s economy is suffering from the high costs of doing business there, which it blames partly on the inefficiency of the Martin Garcia channel. Uruguayan publication El Pais reported in June that the channel was so oversubscribed that 60 percent of ships going to grain port Nueva Palmira, at the end of the channel, must wait 30 days, at a cost per boat per day of $15,000. The report estimated that Uruguayan producers pay more than $18 million a year due to the channel’s inefficiency, an expense dubbed “the Uruguay cost.”

In 2011, the conflict was seemingly resolved after the presidents of the two republics signed an agreement allowing the channel to be dredged to 34 feet, with an option to expand in the future. Four companies in the international dredging industry took the first steps in the bidding project for that contract, including Dredging International N.V., Van Oord Dredging and Marine Contractors B.V., Jan de Nul Group N.V., and Boskalis International B.V. However, Argentine officials dragged their feet on putting out the project to bid.

The bid stalled entirely in 2012 amidst allegations that Riovia had attempted to bribe an Uruguayan official to favor that company in the bid. Riovia denied the allegations, and Argentina never brought the charges to court, nor did it allow the release of the results of an investigation into the matter. Riovia’s $1 million a month contract to maintain the channel’s depth ended in January 2013 and was not extended.

The stalemate between the two countries has continued since then, and meanwhile silt has continued to flow into the Martin Garcia. In August, Uruguayan media and MundoMaritimo.cl reported that four ships had touched bottom in recent weeks, including one ship at kilometer 75 of the channel, another at kilometer 81, and two more near kilometer 59. Negotiations between Argentina and Uruguay led to the port authorities of both countries agreeing to conduct dredging in the channel: the Uruguayan National Port Authority (ANP) began dredging near kilometer 70 and the Waterways Agency of Argentina began dredging around kilometer 40, according to Uruguayan publication El Observador. ANP Vice President Cléver Daniel Montiel said the agency is using the 3,000-cubic-meter (about 3,924-cubic-yard) suction hopper dredge Alfredo Labadie, informally called D-9, for the work.

Montiel emphasized that transit through the channel is safe and guaranteed despite the incidents. The channel had been originally dredged to 32 feet with one or two feet of spare room, plus another three feet during high tide. In some areas, sediment has reduced the draft by a foot or two, but those areas are now being addressed. He was confident that no more ships would touch bottom.

“As soon as we got the complaints we started to work. Everything is safe with navigation through the channel,” Montiel said.

He was less confident about how ongoing negotiations with Argentina over the expansion of the channel would play out.

“This is a bilateral negotiation, and we have more than 40 years of governing the channel together. And like all governments working together we have good moments, regular moments and bad moments,” he said.

Asked about the status of the corruption charges against Riovia, Montiel said that all of Uruguay’s concerns in the matter have been alleviated, and now it is Argentina’s responsibility to answer any remaining questions it has. He said Uruguay is still pushing for the expansion of the channel, which he said would be good for Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, as well as his country.

“The vision that Uruguay has for the Martin Garcia is not just for Uruguay, it’s for the region. The channel can help everyone in this zone of the continent. But this is like the tango, it takes two, and we are hoping we can work together on it,” he said. “We know there’s a game of interests that must be advanced, and sometimes those interests are mutual and other times not so much.”

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