Chilean Water Rights System Leaves Town Parched

Privitization. Not good for our environment. Not good for our economy. Not good for our future. The time has come to fight.


During the past four decades here in Quillagua, a town in the record books as the driest place on earth, residents have sometimes seen glimpses of raindrops above the foothills in the distance. They never reach the ground, evaporating like a mirage while still in the air.

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. In the north, agricultural producers are competing with mining companies to siphon off rivers and tap scarce water supplies, leaving towns like this one bone dry and withering.
"Everything, it seems, is against us," said Bartolomé Vicentelo, 79, who once grew crops and fished for shrimp in the Loa River that fed Quillagua.

Slideshow: Where the water runs dry» View

The population is about a fifth what it was less than two decades ago; so many people have left that he is one of only 120 people still here. Some economists have hailed the Chilean water rights trading system, which was established in 1981 during the military dictatorship, as a model of free-market efficiency that allocates water to its highest economic use.
But other academics and environmentalists argue that Chile's system is unsustainable because it promotes speculation, endangers the environment and allows smaller interests to be muscled out by powerful forces, like the mining industry.
"The Chilean model has gone too far in the direction of unfettered regulation," said Carl J. Bauer, an expert on Chilean water markets at the University of Arizona. "It hasn't thought through the public interest."

Australia and the Western United States have somewhat comparable systems, but they contain stronger environmental regulation and conflict resolution than Chile's, Dr. Bauer said.
Chile is a stark example of the debate over water crises across the globe. Concerns about shortages plague Chile's economic expansion through natural resources like copper, fruit and fish — all of which require loads of water in a country with limited supplies of it. "The dilemma we are facing is whether we can permit ourselves to continue to develop with the same amount of water we have now," said Rodrigo Weisner, water director in the Public Works Ministry of Chile.
"There is no political consensus about how to deal with the challenge of producing the resources we have — including the biggest reserves of copper in the world — in a country that has the most arid desert in the world," Mr. Weisner said.

Fernando Dougnac, an environmental lawyer in Santiago, the capital, said that balance was particularly difficult because the "market can regulate for more economic efficiency, but not for more social-economic efficiency."

Lately, the country's approach to water has been showing some cracks. In the Atacama Desert city of Copiapó, unbridled water trading and a two-year drought mean that "there are many more water rights for the river than water that arrives from the river," Mr. Dougnac said.
Quillagua, in Guinness World Records as the "driest place" for 37 years, had prospered off the Loa River, reaching a population of 800 by the 1940s. A long-haul train stopped there — today the station is abandoned — and the town's school was near its 120-student capacity. (Today there are 16 students.)

That prosperity first began to ebb in 1987, when the military government reduced the water to the town by more than two-thirds, said Raul Molina, a geographer at the University of Chile. But the big blows came in 1997 and 2000, when two episodes of contamination ruined the river for crop irrigation or livestock during the critical summer months.

An initial study by a professor concluded that the 1997 contamination had probably come from a copper mine run by Codelco, the state mining giant. The Chilean government then hired German experts, who said the contamination had a natural origin.

The regional Agriculture and Livestock Service of Chile, part of the Ministry of Agriculture, rebutted those findings in 2000, saying in a report that people, not nature, were responsible. Heavy metals and other substances associated with mineral processing were found that killed off the river's shrimp and made the water undrinkable for livestock. (Drinking water for residents had been transported in for decades.)

end of excerpt.


Tommy said…
I was very interested to read about how the government of Chile is putting economics before people. It seems that it happens that way, more often than not, but I couldn't believe that they have nearly distroyed an entire town for monetary gain. It was very interesting to me too, how a lot of people stay even with the water depleating and past times of contamination. I understand being proud of your land, and having grown up there and wanting to stay, but it seems that things are not getting better and are not going to get better in the near future.
Muxlow said…
It is also interesting that treating water rights like private property rather than a public commons is spreading as water policy through out the world. Alberta, Canada already has Canada's first water market and is looking to spread the management system throughout all their river basins.

In the coming years will Canada see big energy companies buying water rights and creating a monopoly? Given that we have the largest industrial project on the planet - the tar sands - my bet is yes.