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Sustaining Mendoza's environmental future

In Mendoza Province, oases represent 4% of the total land surface (© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)
In Mendoza Province, oases represent 4% of the total land surface
© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria

In Mendoza Province, Argentina, oases - irrigated land in the desert - represent four per cent of the total land surface but contribute to more than 80 per cent of the gross provincial product. In these oases, life depends on water and on the quality of the soil but the quality and quantity of these essential natural resources are rapidly diminishing. In view of the environmental vulnerability and fragility of the area, the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo and the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria carried out a foresight exercise to forecast Mendoza's environmental future up to 2030.

Three separate teams of experts were formed to debate possible future scenarios. The foresight forum, made up of 37 specialists and researchers from science and technology organisations in the province, critically analysed diagnostic information related to key physical and environmental variables. A specialist forum, formed by ten researchers, investigated and identified critical factors that impacted water, soil and air quality, while a technical team made up of six people was responsible for facilitating the process and writing the final report.

Through collaboration, the experts developed a system of indicators (structural poverty, oil and mining industries, environmental management and control, use of soil, climatic changes) that summarised the current status and the trajectory of Mendoza's environmental future in three separate areas: urban oases, the irrigated oases and low-density population oases. Through a set of workshops, using a participatory methodology, two scenarios were constructed.

Business as usual

Salt contamination could lead to irrigated areas being abandoned (© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)
Salt contamination could lead to irrigated areas being abandoned
© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria

The first scenario (trend-setting) involved the continuity of stakeholders, social groups and trends. In some critical areas, this will lead to environmental deterioration, especially in regard to the quality and availability of water resources and the use of land. According to this scenario, by 2030 there will be numerous problems related to salinisation. For example, salt contamination in the aquifers of Mendoza Province's northern oases will increase in some areas, which could lead to irrigated areas being abandoned, affecting 50 per cent of cultivated land. This trend, although to a lesser degree, also applies to the southern oases.

The scenario also envisions that the availability of irrigation water will decrease, as a consequence of rising demand for domestic water and water polluted by liquid and solid waste. As a consequence of urban growth, there will also be a significant loss of land with water rights. Farmers will expand into non-irrigated areas (dry lands) where water needs to be pumped from the subsoil. This means, in the long-term, that aquifer over-exploitation will increase.

Desired future conditions

The second (desired) scenario provides a feasible description of Mendoza's environmental future and envisions that by 2030 subsoil water extraction for irrigation will be under control, putting an end to aquifer over-exploitation. Consequently, the efficiency of water conduction along irrigation canals and efficiency of application will rise from 61 to 90 per cent and from 42 to 70 per cent, respectively.

The objective of the strategic foresight approach has been to visualise as closely as possible what the future may hold (© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria)
The objective of the strategic foresight approach has been to visualise as closely as possible what the future may hold
© Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria

Controlling the drilling of new wells will prevent over-exploitation, and sealing wells which are in bad condition will decrease salt contamination of the aquifer in the northern oases. But middle and high levels of soil salinity will remain as at present, especially in cultivated areas. State control of liquid and soil waste in urban and peri-urban areas will increase, preventing polluted waters reaching irrigation canals. In this way, the availability of water for irrigation will also increase. Improved planning will help to slow down the use of agriculture land, with irrigation rights, for urban developments. The increase in agricultural areas with groundwater irrigation rights will be controlled so that there will be no over-exploitation of aquifers. To secure this future, Mendoza's environmental policies and spatial planning must be modified.

Moving forward

The objective of the strategic foresight approach has been to visualise as closely as possible what the future may hold in order to make the best decisions in the present. In addition to determining two scenarios, the foresight story also developed a set of guidelines for future field work. Mendoza's Ministry of Environment has incorporated these guidelines into the Province's environmental policies and strategic development plan.

Written by: Javier Vitale, Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria-Universidad Nacional de Cuyo

Date published: April 2013

 

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