From the Atacama Desert to Patagonia, a massive 13-year drought has strained Chile’s freshwater resources to breaking point.
By the end of 2021, the fourth year on record, more than half of Chile’s 19 million people were living in an area experiencing “extreme water scarcity,” and in April An unprecedented water rationing plan has been announced in the capital, Santiago.
In hundreds of rural communities in the center and north of the country, Chileans are forced to rely on emergency cisterns to deliver drinking water.
“Water has become a national security issue — it’s that serious,” said Pablo García Chives, a Chilean hydrologist who works at the University of Arizona. It is the biggest problem facing the country economically, socially and environmentally. If we don’t solve this, water will be the cause of the next uprising.”
The water crisis in Chile was high on the agenda when, in 2019, Millions of protesters took to the streets to demand that the country confront entrenched inequality.
Among their demands — which ranged from improved pensions to health care reform — “Not drought, it’s theft” was a common refrain.
Many have called for a rewriting of Chile’s 1981 water law, a relic of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) that perpetuates one of the world’s most privatized water systems, allowing people to buy and sell water allotments like stocks.
Chile is also the only country in the world that specifically provides for this in its constitution Water rights are treated as private property.
Prior to his election last year, Gabriel Borek, The new progressive president of Chilepromised a green future for the country, with a focus on protecting and renewing hydrological cycles.
Borek, 36, indicated his intention Renowned climate scientist Massa Rojas has been appointed Minister of the Environment – but he does not need to look far for a stark reminder of the task ahead.
Just 50 kilometers south of Santiago, Lake Aculio, once a hotspot for tourism, was wiped off the map in less than a decade, disappearing completely in 2018.
A recent research paper, co-authored by García Chevish, found that selling water rights, local population growth and climate change combined to completely dry up the lake.
“I find it really hard to say ‘former lake’,” said Jenny Caro, 40, a local water activist, as she made her way through the cracked earth to the center of the lake bed.
In its heyday in the 1990s, the lake at Akuleu – meaning “where the waters meet” in the indigenous Mapudungon language – had a floating bar that catered to vacationers and boaters across the lake all summer long.
Now, useless jetties sit yards above dry mud, and boat launch ramps turn into straws full of dust from dead stems.
Signs that swimming is safe surround an empty lake bed, and restaurants and campgrounds remain dry and deserted.
“This is where I grew up,” said Caro, “it hurts me that the lake is no longer there, that the trees are drying up and the birds are gone.”
In 2010, the rights to the waters feeding the lake were legally acquired through large agricultural farms and private property, which were taken away from the main tributaries. The valleys passed around the basin from annual crops to summer cottages and water-intensive plantations of fruit trees.
As the area transitioned from agriculture to tourism and then severely deteriorated, locals were forced to find work in closed holiday communities – or relocate to Santiago.
“I was supplying all the markets and communities in the area,” said Alfonso Ortiz, 73, a farmer who once employed several workers to grow watermelons, pumpkins, corn and oranges using water from the lake.
“The agriculture here is dead. There is nothing left,” he said.
Chile’s economy, the largest in South America by GDP per capita, is built on water-intensive extractive industries, particularly mining, forestry, and agriculture.
But its growth came at a price.
Supported by the system of private rights, about 59% of the country’s water resources are allocated to forests, although they constitute only 3% of Chile’s GDP.
Another 37% is for the agricultural sector, which means that only 2% of Chile’s water is for human consumption.
“If they diverted your riverbed to grow fruit and avocados to sell to foreigners – and now they bring you water in tankers – how would you feel?” asked García-Chevesich. “It’s insulting and insulting.”
Across central and southern Chile, watersheds are at risk of suffering the same fate as Lake Aculeo.
“There is a fundamental problem here: The ultimate goal of our water is to make money, not people’s well-being,” said Caro, who holds out hope that the lake will return one day.
But while the need for change is urgent, hope may be on the horizon.
In April, President Borek signed an amendment to the 1981 Water Act after 11 years in Congress. It declares water a public good for human use, and recognizes climate change as a threat to Chile’s water availability.
in another place, A new draft constitution has been drawn up – The outcome of the mass protests of 2019. It goes further in reviewing Chile’s relationship with its resources, noting that water must be protected in all its states and phases, as well as declaring it essential to life and nature.
Carolina Filches, who was elected to the country’s constitutional convention in March 2021, said: “The human right to water is being violated in Chile every day. That is why what we have put into the constitution is so fundamental – we need to change how we see our water.”
The draft will be put to a public referendum on 4 September.
“We need to hit the brakes and take responsibility for all the mistakes that have already been made,” said García Ševic. “If not, the consequences would be dire.”