Public Works in Patagonia, Argentina

Bob Kass
Public Works Director
City of Campbell, California
Member, APWA Membership Committee

  View of Bariloche and Lake Nahuel Huapi

San Carlos de Bariloche (or Bariloche, as it is more commonly called), is a thriving Argentine city of approximately 120,000 residents located in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains in northern Patagonia. Situated within Nahuel Huapi National Park and surrounded by mountains and lakes, Bariloche is a major South American tourist destination and a sister city of Aspen, Colorado. During the Argentine Summer, Bariloche attracts tens of thousands of visitors to its lakes, rivers and mountains. During the South American winter (July, August, September), tens of thousands more (including thousands of Brazilians) come to ski and snowboard at nearby Cerro Catedral, South America's largest ski area.

Bariloche faces many of the same challenges as cities throughout the developing world, where local municipalities struggle to provide public services without the financial resources available to cities and counties in the United States and Canada. Capacity to raise taxes locally is limited; many residents are unable to afford paying for public services; and there is a heavy reliance on revenue from provincial or federal sources for both capital projects and basic city services. Elections for mayor and council members are highly partisan, with subventions from the provincial government often dependent on whether local elected officials are from the same political party as the current provincial and federal leaders.

Among the most significant challenges facing Bariloche has been rapid and somewhat uncontrolled growth. In 1991, Bariloche had a population of 81,000. In 2001, the city had grown modestly to approximately 93,000. Today, estimates of population range from 120,000 to 130,000, with much of that growth in neighborhoods lacking basic public services. Geographically, Bariloche extends nearly 22 miles from east to west along hilly terrain, with Lake Nahuel Huapi constraining the city to the north, and steep mountains, lakes and arroyos constraining growth to the south. Consequently, the cost of providing even basic public services and expanding infrastructure is much more costly than if the city was geographically cohesive.
Juan Carlos Alvarez has served as Bariloche's Director of Public Works and Services since January 2005 (he also served as Director for nearly a year in 2000). His background is in road construction, and he has lived in Bariloche for over 40 years.

Street maintenance is a major public works issue in Bariloche, particularly during the Patagonian winter.

Bariloche's Department of Public Works and Services is responsible for most traditional public works and service functions as well as many planning, building and community development services as well. Alvarez identifies three major areas of concern for residents of Bariloche: the condition of streets; traffic and pedestrian circulation; and garbage collection.

A majority of the streets outside the urban core are unpaved. Municipal funding for maintenance is limited and capital funds for new paving projects from local sources are virtually nonexistent. With rain, snow and freezing rain commonplace during the winter months, maintaining both paved and unpaved streets is a challenge, exacerbated by the hilly terrain. Residents complain about damage to vehicles and restricted vehicular access during inclement weather. With virtually no sidewalks outside the urban core, pedestrians share potholed and uneven roadways with vehicles.

Traffic congestion in the urban core, as well as along the two major east/west roadways, is a constant source of citizen complaints (not unlike many cities in the United States). With few signalized intersections, drivers and pedestrians face a free-for-all at most downtown intersections, with right-of-way assigned to those who are the most fearless. Public transportation is provided by two private bus companies that hold multi-year concessions and is heavily used by the residents of Bariloche. Fares are 40 cents for local trips, and about $1.10 for the 30-40 minute trip from downtown to the ski lifts of Cerro Catedral.

In many neighborhoods, garbage is placed curbside in uncovered wire baskets, or simply hung from utility poles.

One of the most pressing issues facing Bariloche is solid waste management. Currently, both collection and disposal are services provided mainly by municipal workers. Garbage is collected daily, Monday through Saturday in central Bariloche, and three times per week in areas outside the central district. Most residents and small businesses collect their daily garbage in plastic grocery bags which are then placed in wire baskets or other containers of varying shapes and sizes located curbside or on private property. Some of the containers are covered; however, most are not. Some residents simply hang their garbage bags from the nearest utility pole. Garbage is collected by a team of municipal workers, typically one or two "runners" plus a driver. The runners collect the plastic bags by hand and toss them either into piles (for pickup sometime later that day) or throw them directly into the garbage truck as it passes.

Stray dogs and aggressive birds often disperse the garbage before it can be collected, disembowelling plastic bags and scattering litter in the street and in front yards. Garbage trucks make an average of three trips a day to the local landfill, with collection often extending into the early evening hours (8:30 p.m.).

  Workers separate recyclables from garbage at the landfill.

At the landfill, two shifts of workers from the Association Bariloche Recyclers (a nonprofit organization established in 2003 to improve working conditions at the landfill) sort recyclables from garbage. Approximately 50 workers, divided into two six-hour shifts, sort materials by hand. Plastic, glass, cardboard, paper and metal are all separated from garbage for eventual sale to recycling facilities. In order to separate recyclables from garbage, the workers tear open the plastic grocery bags and separate recyclables from organic garbage and waste. The work is done out in the open, and conditions are unsafe, unsanitary and unpleasant.

The Association pays the recycling workers from the net revenue received from the sale of material for future use. Because Bariloche is located far from major population centers, transportation of material is a significant cost. For example, glass is sent to Mendoza, approximately 1,400 kilometers away, plastic waste to Buenos Aires (1,600 kilometers), with cardboard having the shortest trip, four hours to the neighboring provincial capital of Neuquen.

In order to improve the amount of material recycled and to improve working conditions at the landfill, Bariloche has recently implemented a campaign with the slogan "Separation is Easy." The intent of this program is to encourage residents to separate recyclables from organic waste by placing organic waste in green plastic bags and recyclable material in white (or other) bags. Currently, one grocery chain provides customers with one green bag for every white bag. The hope is that residents will voluntarily separate their waste so that recycling workers at the landfill can focus their separation efforts on the white bags, leaving the green bags to be disposed of in the landfill.

Plans are also being developed to close the existing disposal site (which has reached capacity) and construct a new sanitary landfill, with groundwater protection and an onsite materials sorting facility. This is also a major challenge facing Bariloche, as the intent is to privatize the ownership and operation of the landfill.

Bariloche is blessed with incredible natural resources and is well-deserving of its reputation as an international tourist destination. The challenge for this Patagonian community will be to preserve its natural resources as growth and development continue to exert pressures on the provision and maintenance of basic public services.

Bob Kass is the Immediate Past Chair of the International Affairs Committee. He spent ten weeks in Argentina this past summer with his family. He can be reached at (408) 425-4713 or