La Plata


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The La Plata Basin is part of / comprises: · Latin America and Caribbean · South America ·
Countries sharing the La Plata Basin: · Argentina · Bolivia · Brazil · Paraguay · Uruguay ·
Facts & Figures edit
Catchment AreaA 2,954,500 km3
Neighbouring BasinsA Amazon, Lagoon Mirim, Lake Titicaca-Poopo, Zapaleri
PopulationA 59,100,000
Population DensityA 20 /km2
DischargeA 720 km3/yr
Surface Area m3
Average Depth m
Water Volume m2
Water Stress 12100 m3/person/year
Average Precipitation mm/yr
Evaporation mm/yr
Runoff 255000 mm/yr
Land Use
Irrigated Area 18400 km2
Irrigable Area 3680000 km2
No. of DamsA 54
Dam Density 0.9 dams/km2
Total Water Withdrawals km3
  For Agricultural Use
  For Domestic Use
  For Industrial Use
Renewable Water Available (m3/yr/pers)
References & Remarks
A Transboundary Freshwater Spatial Database, Oregon University

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Latest 4 maps for / including La Plata (more..):



Water Basin Profile: Physical and Hydrological Characteristics


Extending over 3.1 million km2, La Plata River basin is the second largest river system in South America and the fifth largest in the world. Shared by Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, it covers about one-fifth of South America. With over 100 million inhabitants, close to 50 big cities and 75 large dams, La Plata River basin is at the core of the region’s socio-economic activities, which generate around 70% of the per capita GDP of the five basin countries.

With its extensive geographic coverage, La Plata River basin is highly variable topographically, ranging from 4,000 metre high mountains in north-western Argentina and southern Bolivia to almost sea level southern plains in Argentina and Uruguay. Rainfall similarly varies, from less than 700 mm per year in the western Bolivian highlands to more than 1,800 mm per year along the Brazilian coast in the east. The second edition of the World Water Development Report included a comprehensive assessment of the water resources of the basin (UNESCO-WWAP, 2006).


The regional climate is significantly affected by El Niño- Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is accompanied by heavy rains, often resulting in catastrophic flooding. This large-scale global event produces complex variations that have a major impact on the climate and, consequently, on the basin’s hydrology, and that greatly affect its population and economy.

An upward trend in rainfall has been observed in the south of subtropical Argentina since the 1960s and in southern Brazil and northern Argentina since the mid-1970s. Analysis of the mean discharge in the Paraná, Paraguay, Uruguay and La Plata sub-basins shows a similar trend. Measurements taken at Corrientes station on the Paraná River indicate increases of 16% in annual rainfall and 35% in discharge. The trend is thought to be linked partly to changes in land use, such as deforestation and increased soybean cultivation in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

In addition, floods have been more frequent in La Plata River basin. Twelve of the 16 biggest monthly discharges ever recorded on the Paraná River have occurred since the 1970s; they included catastrophic ENSO events in 1982/1983, 1991/1992 and 1997/1998. Similar trends are observed for the Paraguay and Uruguay rivers. For example, two-thirds of the major floods in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, which is located near the Paraguay River, were recorded in the last quarter of the 20th century. For the Uruguay River, the 16 greatest daily discharge peaks were recorded after 1970. All these significant variations can be associated with climate change.

An important impact of climate change and climatic variation is expected to be on water availability for agriculture, with the effects varying considerably by location. For example, existing water supply problems in northern Argentina may worsen, necessitating changes in crop type and cultivation frequency, as well as better irrigation and drainage methods. Conversely, agricultural water supply in south-eastern Brazil is expected to increase (Magrin et al., 2007).

Water Basin Profile: Socio-Economic and Environmental Issues

State of Water Resources and Water Use

In terms of freshwater potential, the Paraná River is the most important in La Plata River basin, with a mean annual flow of about 17,100 m3 per second (m3/s) at Corrientes. The Uruguay River has a mean annual flow of about 4,300 m3/s, while the Paraguay River has the lowest capacity, with a mean annual flow of some 3,800 m3/s at Puerto Pilcomayo (UNESCO-WWAP, 2006). The basin is also rich in groundwater resources. The Guaraní aquifer, shared by all five countries except Bolivia, is one of the world’s largest groundwater reservoirs, extending over 1.19 million km2 and having an estimated capacity of 37,000 billion m3. Of this, 40 billion m3 to 80 billion m3 per year is exploited, mainly in Brazil for consumption in over 300 cities.

Of the overall agricultural area in La Plata River basin, the share of irrigated land is relatively low, varying from 2% in Paraguay to 15% in Uruguay. On the other hand, in all the basin countries agriculture holds the largest share of overall water consumption: from 62% in Brazil to 96% in Uruguay (FAO, 2004). Extensive rice production, and agricultural development projects undertaken since 1996, underlie this phenomenon; rice is one of the main irrigated crops in the basin. Moreover, increased average annual rainfall, coupled with the promotion of soybeans as the key crop, has resulted in expansion of agriculture, especially towards historically arid and semi-arid zones. Total combined soybean production in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay is expected to rise by about 85% by 2020. Changes in land use and the potential effects of climate change could lead to salinization and desertification in the basin. With regard to efforts under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger, Uruguay met this target in 2003, but the other basin countries have yet to do so.

In general, poverty indicators are trending downwards in the basin countries. From a reference year of 2002, Argentina has taken a significant leap forwards in alleviating poverty. The progress made by Brazil, although modest in appearance, represents some 6 million people lifted out of extreme poverty (ECLAC, 2007b).

Industrial water demand varies among the four main subbasins. Demand is highest in the Paraná River sub-basin due to the major industrial areas in Brazil’s São Paulo state and the Buenos Aires-Rosario region in Argentina. Although large rivers like the Paraná have a high self-cleaning potential, contamination by industrial, agricultural and household effluents is causing major environmental degradation, especially along the banks of the lower Paraná.

Urbanization is one of the biggest drivers of change in La Plata River basin. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, the share of urban dwellers in the region’s population increased from about 45% to 86.6%, mainly through internal migration. In general, access to safe water coverage is better in urban than in rural areas. However, the data in the figure represent best case scenarios. Problems stemming from poorly maintained infrastructure and intermittence of service provision mean actual service is generally much poorer. In Uruguay, for example, water loss ranges from 46.2% to 54.4% (Gobierno de la República de Uruguay, 2001). Urban-rural discrepancies are also observed in access to improved sanitation. The gap in access to sanitation services in all basin countries except Uruguay varies from around 10 percentage points to more than 40. Lack of sewage treatment facilities means effluents are often directly discharged into streams that are used as a water source downstream. Shanty towns in periurban areas suffer the most: water and sanitation coverage is lower or non-existent in these areas. This situation, in turn, increases the risk of water-related disease. Unfortunately, problems related to slums in the region are reported to have worsened since the 1980s (Von Cappeln, 2002).

Energy production in La Plata River basin is mainly based on non-renewable sources. However, hydropower, whose potential in the basin is huge, has a considerable share in electricity generation in all five countries. Indeed, Paraguay depends almost entirely on hydropower for its electricity generation, and dams on the Paraná River generate about 46% of the electricity used in Brazil (CIC, 2004a). Roughly 60% of the basin’s hydropower potential is exploited. Among more than 100 hydropower plants in the basin (including those under construction), some are bilateral projects, such as Itaipú (Brazil and Paraguay), Yacyretá (Argentina and Paraguay) and Salto Grande (Argentina and Uruguay). Biofuel also plays a role in the energy supply, especially in Brazil.

Waterways in La Plata River basin have been navigated since the 16th century. The Paraguay and Paraná rivers form a natural north-south transport corridor, connecting the five riparian countries to the Atlantic Ocean. The Hidrovía Paraguay-Paraná project, a waterway that would run from Puerto Cáceres in Brazil to Nueva Palmira in Uruguay, was proposed in the late 1980s because of the continuous maintenance requirements of the natural corridor.

The Hidrovía would be a complex navigation system allowing year-round navigability by ships and barge trains. The aim is to promote regional development by reducing goods transport costs, improving links with commercial centres and providing landlocked Bolivia and Paraguay with a sea outlet (UNESCO-WWAP, 2006). However, the project would entail extensive dredging, construction of dikes and levees, and channel straightening. The environmental impact of the work could prove to be extensive and diverse. In particular, the project could significantly modify the flow regime of the Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland, risking serious damage to the site. Such a change would affect not only biodiversity, but also water levels at the confluence of the Paraná and Paraguay rivers. Other issues include the risk of alteration of natural aquifer systems and increased water contamination should the waterway lead to growth in the local population, in commercial and industrial activities and in irrigation (UNESCO-WWAP, 2006).

Another key navigation corridor in the region, which would be linked to the Hidrovía, is the 2,400 km Tietê- Paraná waterway in Brazil. It facilitates transport of up to 2 million tonnes per year of grain and other goods between states in Brazil and between Brazil and the other La Plata River basin countries.

Water Basin Profile: Transboundary Political and Institutional Setting

Water Basin Profile: Emerging Challenges and Opportunities for the Future


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Projects and Case Studies

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Who is Who

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External Resources

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