Argentina proyecta adecuar un pasillo en el Río de la Plata para evitar las aguas de Uruguay

Argentina plans to adapt a corridor in the Río de la Plata to avoid passing through Uruguayan waters


05 | 01 | 2023


Improvements in the Magdalena Canal should allow vessels to access Buenos Aires without having to approach Montevideo and thus gain logistical sovereignty.

In the picture

Satellite image of the Río de la Plata [NASA].

To access the interior of the Rio de la Plata, in order to reach the port of Buenos Aires or to enter the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, the main route for Argentine goods, ships must approach Montevideo, waiting in Uruguayan waters and paying Uruguay for the maritime services it provides. Planned years ago, Argentina is now preparing to open the Magdalena Canal, a corridor that aims to avoid Uruguayan waters, while at the same time lightening traffic, as it should allow navigation in both directions, unlike the current route. With this, Argentina seeks greater logistic autonomy; Uruguay estimates that it will lose hundreds of jobs.

The Río de la Plata is 325 kilometers long, from the confluence of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers to its final widening between Samborombón Bay, on the western shore, and Punta del Este, on the eastern shore. It acts as a natural border between Argentina and Uruguay and constitutes the main gateway to entrance and exit for Argentine trade.

Given the shallowness of much of the Rio de la Plata, the route that ships entering the estuary must take follows a central route, which is accessed transversely from the vicinity of Montevideo. From near the port of the Uruguayan capital, the ships take an artificial channel that runs from east to west, the Punta Indio, a hundred kilometers long, until it joins the Intermediate Channel (also known as Argentino), which is the main groove of the river bed. Due to its narrowness, the Punta Indio Channel is a one-way channel, which forces ships, especially those coming from the ocean, to wait for up to seven days. These waits, in waters of common use but administered by Uruguay, generate a business of some US$40,000 per day for those who provide the various port services in Montevideo (cargo transshipment, refueling and grocery supply, among others).

For some time, Argentina has wanted promote an alternative route, using the Magdalena Channel, a natural extension of the Intermediate Channel, aligned with the direction of the river current, which would allow entering the estuary navigating through Argentine waters, without touching Uruguayan jurisdiction. But it is a shallower channel, so that large vessels cannot use it to access the river ports of the Río de la Plata. For this reason, Argentina plans to adapt it for maritime traffic, dredging its bed to increase its depth from the current 4.5 meters to 11 meters and to reach a width of 150 meters, allowing navigation in both directions.

Although it goes back a long way, the project of the Magdalena Channel in its present formulation has its origins in 2002, when the Argentine Naval Prefecture (PNA) proposed the convenience of no longer postponing its implementation due to the progressive increase of cargo capacity in transoceanic transportation. In 2013, the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took the initiative and began to take the necessary steps for its approval by the competent bodies, including the Comisión Administradora del Río de la Plata (CARP). The procedures were completed in January 2016, but the government of Mauricio Macri, who was then taking the initiative, decided to abandon the project due to its high cost.

With the return of Peronism to the presidency of the country, under the leadership of Alberto Fernández, and with the election of Axel Kicillof, a member of Kirchner's party, as governor of the province of Buenos Aires, the project was once again on the table. In the 2021 federal budget a multiannual item of 25.8 million pesos (about 300,000 dollars at the exchange rate at that time) was included for the beginning of works that could cost more than 300 million dollars. Once the environmental impact reports of project have been passed, it is now time to proceed with the international bidding process for its execution.

In the picture

Map of the inland channels of the Río de la Plata [ArgenPorts].

Punta Indio is currently the only route to entrance to the Río de la Plata for ships arriving from the open sea or the exit to the ocean for ships descending the waterway or leaving the large port of Buenos Aires. The channel starts in the area of 'Portón Recalada', in front of the port of Montevideo, and extends westward through 'El Codillo' until it meets the Intermediate Channel.

Due to the current conditions of the Punta Indio Channel, a vessel bound for Argentine river ports through the Río de la Plata must anchor in a waiting area located in waters that, although of common use, are administered by Uruguay. Vessels are awaiting clearance for entry by Uruguay's maritime authority, the River Plate Traffic Control Center (CONTRASE), and the PNA.

The Magdalena project is the straight line extension of the Intermediate Channel from 'El Codillo' to the natural depth zone of the Río de la Plata, with an approximate length of about sixty kilometers. It is planned to carry out dredging, beaconing, opening, signaling and maintenance tasks in the channel.

In geographic and geological terms, this project has a number of significant advantages. The Magdalena is a natural channel oriented in the direction of the current and prevailing winds in the area, which reduces the sedimentation process. Unlike the soils closer to the Uruguayan coast, the Magdalena area does not present hard materials, which facilitates dredging works. Although navigation through this corridor would imply an increase in the navigation distance for vessels intending to enter from the ocean to the Argentine port (or make the reverse route), there would be a time saving due to the two-way system, thus speeding up navigation. For these reasons and for the greater logistic options, the president of the Port of La Plata, José María Lajo, considers the project as a "strategic" work for Argentina.

For its part, Uruguay admits that it will mean a decrease in its economic benefits derived from the maritime services that until now have been provided from Montevideo. This is stated by Edison González Lapeyre, former president of the National Ports Administration (ANP) of Uruguay, who estimates that there will be a loss of "hundreds" of jobs at work on the eastern side, especially due to the foreseeable reduction of cargo transshipments from southern Argentina in Montevideo. In any case, he does not believe that it will have a "serious" impact, since Argentina remains committed to continue contributing financially, from agreement with the existing treaties between the two countries, for the maintenance and improvement of the Punta Indio Channel, which also has dredging plans to reach a depth of 13 meters. In addition, it warns of the important expense maintenance of the new route, as it considers that it will require a constant effort to prevent sedimentation from reducing the depth and width of the corridor. These aspects are minimized by the promoters of the new channel, who above all conceive the project in terms of greater sovereignty for Argentina.