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Sanitary alert in El Chaltén : the community mobilizes to protect environment and health

The inhabitants of El Chaltén, local environmental associations, health center professionals and CONICET researchers are warning about the environmental consequences of tourism overload. In this small Patagonian town nestled in Los Glaciares National Park, at the foot of the most famous peaks in the world, the community warns about water contamination and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused by poor wastewater management by the state-owned company SPSE.

El Chaltén is experiencing stresses and challenges as tourism develops faster than its basic infrastructure can be upgraded. This small town in southern Argentine Patagonia, with its unique view of Mount Fitz Roy, is one of the world's largest freshwater reserves and a rapidly growing tourist destination.

El Chaltén is located in Los Glaciares National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1981 for its spectacular beauty, its glaciological and geomorphological importance and its endangered local fauna.

One of the most burning issues facing El Chaltén is the critical state of its wastewater treatment plant. The plant's capacity has reached its limit and, in 2022, just before the start of the summer tourist season, untreated waste discharges were recorded in the rivers bordering the town. This situation poses a serious threat to public health and the integrity of the region's surface water bodies.

El Chaltén is at the crossroads between the promotion of sustainable tourism and the need to ensure environmental conservation.

El Chaltén has about 3,000 inhabitants and receives more than 10,000 tourists per day in high season*. Residents, health personnel, local associations and local researchers are concerned about the total lack of control over the contamination of the Fitz Roy and Río de las Vueltas rivers.

The health alert issued by doctors of the local health center warns of the presence of E.coli bacteria and multiresistant to antibiotics bacteria downstream of the sewage treatment plant. The research project entitled "Study of bacterial resistance to antibiotics in Argentine wetlands", developed by Soledad Domínguez and Soledad Esquius, researchers from the National University of Mar del Plata, reveals the development of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the aquatic ecosystems of the protected area. Indications of the presence of E.coli bacteria strains show resistance patterns similar to those found in rivers heavily impacted by human presence, such as rivers bordered by industries like La Plata and Luján. Bacteria detected in the water at the confluence of rivers represent a danger of infectious disease development, a risk to both human health and biodiversity.

Today, international tourists visiting the site are not informed of local issues, because there is a desire to preserve the reputation of the site. The French are the most represented nationality in the Northern Zone of Les Glaciers National Park, with 20% of visitors in 2019**.

Residents take legal action in the hope that authorities will take action

The community of El Chaltén, concerned about the critical environmental situation resulting from the poor condition of its wastewater treatment plant, has filed an environmental lawsuit against Servicios Públicos Sociedad del Estado, the public company of the Province of Santa Cruz in charge of the treatment plant. The legal action demands the immediate, urgent and definitive cessation, restoration and repair of the environmental damage to the Fitz Roy and Vueltas rivers, located in Los Glaciares National Park.

But this was only possible thanks to an outstanding alliance of women at the forefront of this denunciation campaign. First of all, the women researchers who played an essential role in setting up a program to monitor the waters of the protected area; then the Park's conservation officers, the women doctors, the Boana volunteers, the women lawyers, the neighbors. All of them use their means and resources to take care of their community and their environment.

The current national political context increases the uncertainty surrounding the management of this public health problem.

The defense of environmental rights and transparent water management are at risk in the face of threats to dismantle the Ministries of the Environment and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) by the newly elected government. Likewise, the new head of government advocates the privatization of rivers, despite the fact that Argentina has more than 8,484 km² of glaciers and one of the world's largest reserves of fresh water, essential for the planet.

The denial of climate change and the open war against environmental movements feed and legitimize all incitements to discredit and harm environmental advocates in a country where nature is seen as a resource to be privatized, exploited and sold as a commodity.

As a multicultural, feminist and environmentalist association, allied with research and the protection of nature as a common good of humanity, we will remain mobilized, in solidarity with citizens' movements and will continue to fight for the social and environmental rights of people, for a just world and for a habitable and preserved planet.

*Based on an estimate by the National Parks Administration, which registers the number of visitors to the site on a daily basis.

**Sgubini, P. (2018). Informe Indicadores de Sustentabilidad Turística de la Municipalidad de El Chaltén, Provincia de Santa Cruz.

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