A large-scale plan to develop hydropower dams on the Baker River in Chile have run into an oppositional buzzsaw, with the question of water rights playing a leading role.
The HidroAysén project, proposed by a consortium, has become a major issue in the country: It runs near a number of parks, reserves, wetlands and other conservation areas. The latest point of opposition, however, has been through questions over whether the developers have proper water rights for the effort.
A group of conservation organizations submitted papers in court raising those questions. On October 27, a court threw out most of those documents. But aspects of the case are continuing.
Post-earthquake, Chile has a number of infrastructure challenges, but a new one was added in a study by the General Water Directorate of the Public Works Ministry: the Copiapo, Huasco, and Limari aquifer seem to be heavily oversubscribed, and many of the water rights there may not be usable.
The Santiago Times (English-language) reported on May 11 that “the preliminary study criticized the current Public Water Registry for its lack of large amounts of information needed to reasonably address water concerns. The Registry contains information on designated water rights, existing hydraulic projects, and studies of water availability. The investigation, carried out by the General Water Directorate (DGA) in the Public Works Ministry, also criticized the bureaucracy dealing with water rights requests as inefficient in areas where water rights are not oversubscribed. As of April, roughly 9,000 applications to use water for agricultural or industrial projects were being processed.”
A followup study has been launched.
The Supreme Court of Chile in late November ruled in favor of two small communities, whose residents were mainly indigenous peoples, and against a large water bottling company in resolving a water rights dispute that might have left the communities largely dry.
The decision awarded nine liters per second to the communities of Chusmiza and Usmagama in the Aymara area. The water had been sought by Agua Mineral Chusmiza, a company which planned to develop a large-scale water bottling effort in the area.
The Santiago Times reported that “The Supreme Court decision on Aymara water rights upholds rulings by both the Pozo Almonte tribunal and the Iquique Court of Appeals, and marks the first judicial application of ILO Convention 169 in Chile. Lawyers for the indigenous communities said the decision strikes a blow against ironclad private licenses provided by the 1981 Water Code, which they say is a leftover from the Pinochet dictatorship.”
The legal battle had been going on for 14 years, and grew out of water policies developed by the Pinochet regime. The company’s licenses, which were awarded under a 1981 water code, had been considered virtually unbreakable.
A post in the English-language Korea Times is following up on the March meeting of the World Water Forum at Istanbul by taking a close look at a Third World water rights and management system that – the paper say – does work well: In Chile.
Nearly 30 years ago, Chile’s water management was much like that in most poor countries today. A central, ill-informed authority controlled water, leading to high leakage, waste, untreated sewage and corruption: the poor got the worst supplies, just like the one billion people in the world who still lack clean drinking water.
Yet today Chile boasts near universal supply in towns and 72 percent in the countryside ? one of the highest in South America ? with an increasingly sustainable use of water by industry.
That success is the result of empowering people and entrepreneurs to own and manage water: unfortunately, about 95 percent of the world’s water management is still in the hands of public authorities, often incompetent or downright corrupt.
A system that bears some passing resemblance to that in the United States. [Korea Times, April 12]
The New York Times has posted a cautionary note for anyone – in the United States as well as elsewhere – doubting the importance of regular availability to water: As a practical matter, water rights.
The subject in the town of Quillagua in Chile, an extremely dry place in the Atacama Desert, which in turn is one of the driest on earth.
“What the town did have was a river, feeding an oasis in the Atacama desert. But mining companies have polluted and bought up so much of the water, residents say, that for months each year the river is little more than a trickle — and an unusable one at that. Quillagua is among many small towns that are being swallowed up in the country’s intensifying water wars. Nowhere is the system for buying and selling water more permissive than here in Chile, experts say, where water rights are private property, not a public resource, and can be traded like commodities with little government oversight or safeguards for the environment. Private ownership is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up 80 percent of the water rights in a huge region in the south, causing an uproar. ”
The story may also serve as a warning about the potential inherent in a water market left unregulated.