By Michael Mortimer 

"I could feel hot flames of fire roaring at my back
As she disappeared
But soon she returned
In her hand was a bottle of wine
In the other, a glass
She poured some of the wine from the bottle into the glass
And raised it to her lips
And just before she drunk it
She said
Take the wine, take that pearl
Spill the wine, take that pearl"

(Eric Burdon & War, 1970)

 

Mendoza Province is the epicenter of both wine culture and wine production in Argentina. Mendoza is responsible for about 75 percent of Argentina’s wine production, and fully 70 percent of the world’s Malbecs (for comparison’s sake: California accounts for about 80 percent of wine production in the U.S.). 

Counterintuitively, Mendoza Province is also a desert. On average it receives less that 10 inches of rain per year; about the same amount as Phoenix, Arizona. Its sprawling wine industry is watered by the melting snowpack from the nearby Andes mountains. Eighty percent of that sparkling mountain water is used for agricultural irrigation—the vast majority by Mendoza’s more than 1,000 wineries. Another 15 percent is spoken for by the region’s households. Only a small percentage is available for industry and other uses. If it were not for the Andean snowpacks, Mendoza’s wines and Mendoza itself would cease to exist

Threats: natural and man-made
Mendoza is a series of small oases. Ninety-five percent of its 1.7 million inhabitants cling precariously to less than five percent of the province’s land, dependent on a reliable and consistent flow of irrigation waters; not dissimilar to Egypt’s dependence upon the Nile. But threats loom. Some are beyond anyone’s control. A persistent drought has gripped Mendoza for the last decade. Other threats are man-made: climate change, urban growth pressures, the desire by some to see mining and fracking developed as means to resuscitate Argentina’s ailing economy.

  • Climate change is working to shrink the Andean glaciers. This will affect the amount and timing of runoff, and ultimately it will lead to declines in the amount of both surface and groundwater.
  • Tourism is a powerful factor in Mendoza—think Napa or Sonoma. But as tourism grows, so does the need for housing and hotels. Mendoza City has seen population growth of 40 percent in the last twenty years.
  • Finally, Mendoza is home to both mineral and petroleum deposits. National and local governments, desperate to ease Argentina’s nearly 10 percent unemployment and 50 percent (and soaring) inflation, are willing to consider nearly any project that promises to put people to work and is a means to acquire more stable foreign currency. Mining and drilling projects, though, both use water that isn’t there and risk polluting the nearly invaluable water that does exist.

Opportunities: technological, social, and legal
These threats to the environmental security of the Mendoza Province are all quite real. But there are reasons to be hopeful.

  • Current irrigation techniques are remarkably inefficient. Some estimates put the dominant open canal irrigation at only 45 percent efficiency—more than half the available water is claimed by the sun and the sky. Investment in more efficient drip irrigation is already underway. As water becomes ever more scarce and precious, local wineries are finding the pesos to improve how they irrigate.
  • Mendoza has high social cohesiveness. Wine grapes are the very fabric of the Mendoza community. The Spaniards first planted them nearly 500 years ago; a half-millennium of wine. This long-lived association of wine with a sense of place seems to have produced a strong wine identity, or winedentity as I call it. This manifests in asembleas por el aqua that serve to empower local peoples to act collectively in the face of threats to neighborhoods or resources. More on that in a moment.
  • Mendoza’s environmental institutions are robust. It promulgated an environmental law in 1992 patterned on the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that mandates environmental assessments and transparency with proposed projects. And in 2007 the Province passed a law (No. 7722) specifically aimed at both prohibiting the use of harmful chemicals in mining operations and requiring that new mining projects be assessed and approved by both the executive and legislative branches of government. 

These advantages, not shared by any of Argentina’s other provinces, were tested in late 2019 when the government attempted to gut the protective provisions of No. 7722. The action sparked mass citizen protests, including a procession of some thousands of people from San Carlos to Mendoza—a distance of 86 miles in blazing summer desert heat. The government was forced to back down. This flamboyant example of winedentity demonstrates the public’s confidence in Mendoza’s institutions and trust that they will work properly as designed. But it also serves as evidence that, at times, even the best of institutions will require active protection.

Environmental security threats, regardless of their origin, can be met with better technology, more efficient conservation practices, and thoughtful and progressive laws and regulations. But at the end of the day, the risks are to the people, their place, and their identity. The people need to be vigilant; leadership will be necessary. For as a locally famous 78-year old vintner told me, “We are crazy in Mendoza. We should take better care of the water.”

Michael Mortimer portrait

Michael Mortimer is the Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana and his law degree from the Pennsylvania State University. He teaches in the Center’s Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability course, and he has led students to more than a dozen countries. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural-resources journals. He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.