By Marianela Jarroud
"Why should we pay water rights if people who were born and raised in the countryside always had access to this resource?" The leader of peasant women in southern Patagonia, Patricia Mancilla, asked Tierramérica in a statement that it is repeated throughout the country among small producers.
Chile, a long and narrow country, has abundant water resources, but unevenly distributed: while to the south of Santiago the average annual availability is more than 10,000 cubic meters per person, to the north it does not reach 800 cubic meters per inhabitant, according to a 2011 World Bank study.
Whether there is more or less availability, the 1980 Constitution establishes water as a private good. The use of water resources, according to market rules, is regulated by a Water Code, which gives the State the power to grant rights of use to companies, free of charge and in perpetuity.
It also empowers to buy, sell or lease those rights without taking into account priorities of use.
“Chile is the only country in the world that has its sources and water management privatized,” activist Rodrigo Mundaca, secretary general of the Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and Environmental Protection, told Tierramérica.
The activist and agronomist added that Chilean law "separates ownership of water from ownership of land, giving rise to the water market," which causes landowners to exist without water, and vice versa.
The Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) established two categories of water use rights: consumptive and non-consumptive.
Among consumptive rights, those in which the resource is consumed when using it, 73 percent are in the hands of the agricultural sector, 9 percent of mining, 12 percent of the industrial sector and 6 percent in the hands of the health sector, said Mundaca .
The non-consumptive ones, those in which water is not consumed, but rather passes through, are mainly intended for the generation of hydroelectricity and 81 percent of these rights have been in the hands of the Italian-Spanish company Enel-Endesa since 2009, revealed the leader.
As a consequence, “today the communities of northern Chile are facing mega-mining over water; the communities of the center, with agribusiness and agro-exports; and those in the south, with hydroelectric and forestry plants, ”said Mundaca.
“Water is currently, without a doubt, the most important environmental problem in the country. Small farmers have lost their land and there are communes (municipalities) like Petorca, where more than 3,000 women live alone because their partners went out to find new sources of work, ”he said.
In general, Latin America is one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to crises caused by climate change, according to the World Bank. But in Chile, the greatest vulnerability for small farmers is not the climate, but the "theft of water" by large agro-exporters.
Petorca, a paradigmatic case
"The water business shows the conflict of interest, influence peddling and corruption in Chile," small farmer Ricardo Sanhueza, who lives in the municipality of Petorca, 220 kilometers north of Santiago, told Tierramérica. represents the paradigm of the impact of the water model of the last 35 years.
"I remember that between 1987 and 1997 we lived through a severe drought, but there was never a lack of drinking water," he added. Petorca is located in the province of the same name and its more than 70,000 inhabitants must be supplied with water by tanker trucks.
"The problem here is not climate," he said, "the problem is over-exploitation of land and abuse of water." "Political interests are undermining the foundations of peasant family farming," he concluded.
The province of Petorca, with an area of 4,589 square kilometers, is framed from east to west by the Andes mountain range and the Pacific Ocean.
According to a study by the state National Institute of Human Rights (INDH), the causes of the water shortage experienced by this province "would not only be associated with the phenomenon of drought", but also affect "business activities that take place in the area" .
The report also points out that "the granting of water rights over extinct basins are represented as factors that have contributed to generating a situation of water crisis that seriously affects the quality of life of the inhabitants of the province of Petorca."
"The prioritization of the productive function of water, over its function of human consumption has contributed to the exacerbation of the problem," he added.
Monica Flores, a psychologist at the municipal Department of Public Health, told Tierramérica with nostalgia how the Petorca River dried up completely, which ended the active social life of its inhabitants around it.
"The river was born in the mountain range and emptied into the sea, but today we see only a gray line, full of earth and stones," he revealed.
“There is a before and an after. My childhood revolved around the river: there I played with my friends, we bathed, we polo. However, my daughter's life is not the same, it is much more lonely, ”said Flores.
"Many rituals were performed next to the river that was the heart, the backbone of the province," he asserted about the impact on the population of the river's disappearance.
But Petorca is just one example of the reality that exists in Chile.
On March 22, during World Water Day, the NHRI warned that "the development of the country must not be at the cost of sacrificing water to the communities, nor at the cost of mortgaging the future of generations to come."
Currently, the Water Resources Commission of the Chamber of Deputies is debating the reform of the Water Code and there are substantial advances, such as the establishment of priorities for the use of water for essential needs and the modification of property rights in perpetuity for a use concession. and temporary enjoyment.
But the improvements of the reform, once it comes into force, will only be applicable for the future and most of the water rights are already granted.
In addition, until now the privilege of waters has not been touched to the mining sector, which grants the right to take advantage of the waters found in mining operations. Neither does it speak of the insufficiency of reserves for essential uses of peasants and indigenous people or of constitutional changes to recover the status of water as a public good.
The Constitution forged by the dictatorship “indicates that all people are free and equal in dignity and rights. However, the deprivation of water has vast sectors of the population taking it from cistern trucks, bathing by dam (parts) and relieving themselves in plastic bags, ”emphasized Mundaca.
“It is shameful and improper. The water must be recovered in one way or another ”, he concluded.
Originally published by Tierramérica's Latin American newspaper network.