Now Reading
Chile’s struggle for water rights: A disappearing lake
[vc_row thb_full_width=”true” thb_row_padding=”true” thb_column_padding=”true” css=”.vc_custom_1608290870297{background-color: #ffffff !important;}”][vc_column][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][thb_postcarousel style=”style3″ navigation=”true” infinite=”” source=”size:6|post_type:post”][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Chile’s struggle for water rights: A disappearing lake

On a sandy beach beside a lake, a woman attaches a sail to a surfboard, a child stands in the background

According to an old legend, Laguna de Aculeo is home to a wealth in Inca gold. It is a lake in central Chile. Locals claim that the lagoon is surrounded with lush hills and overlooked by the Andes Mountains, so you can see the gold shimmering in the water.

The lagoon, once the largest natural body of water in Chile, is now completely dry and without any signs of life. It turns out that there was never any silver. However, the true wealth of this water has been discovered by locals.

“I heard birds sing all day because of the amazing flora-fauna in the lagoon. You could see the fish swim under the water, it was so clear,” said Viola Gonzalez Vera, who has lived by Aculeo, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of the capital, Santiago, for the past 30 years.

The lake bed has become cracked and parched due to frequent droughts. Decaying jetties mark where the water used to be, like ghosts left behind to remind locals of what this place once was.

On a sandy beach beside a lake, a woman attaches a sail to a surfboard, a child stands in the background

2011 was a good year for water sports like windsurfing.

Chile has been suffering from a megadrought in the last decade. Central regions have seen 30% less rainfall than usual. Climate change has been blamed for Aculeo’s disappearance for years.

The lagoon had survived for over 3,000 years, despite Chile being no stranger to drought. Hydrology and water management experts confirmed that the picture was complex at the beginning of 2022. The main culprit was overexploitation by the humans. 

A disappearing lagoon, and livelihoods

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Sustainability in January 2022 found that, although below-average rainfall had had an effect over the past decade, there was “indisputable evidence” that water had disappeared because of human activity mainly through diverting rivers and pumping groundwater from aquifers that had replenished the lake

According to the study, the lagoon never dried out even after four droughts and low rainfall over the 20th century.

“But throughout the 1990s agricultural industries started deviating those rivers when the state started assigning 100% of the water rights of one river, and then another, then another,” said Pablo Garcia-Chevesich, a Chilean professor at the Colorado School of Mines and University of Arizona and report co-author.

The Pintue river, an important tributary, was completely diverted in 2010. Large-scale farms that produce cherries and avocados set up deep wells and pumped water directly to the lagoon.

A decaying wooden pier juts out into a dried lakebed

A wooden pier serves as a reminder of the lake that once existed here

Garcia-Chevesich, a member of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme, said that it didn’t matter how heavy the rain was. “The lagoon was unable support a drought for the first time in its history.”

Tourists disappeared with the disappearance of the surrounding nature and the lagoon. Small-scale farmers around the lagoon watched their harvests shrink, and animals died.

Over the years, some in the community had lost access to safe drinking water as new summer homes with pristine lawns and swimming pools guzzled up the supply. But this was nothing compared to the exploitation that occurred when the avocado and cherry producers moved in, say locals.

Gonzalez Vera, who lives in her backyard and is just meters from the lake’s former location, said that she has witnessed people crying in the streets because they didn’t have enough water. The tank is filled with water, which is then transported by truck to the village.

Garcia-Chevesich attributes the loss of the lagoon to the state and its impact on the locals. “It’s an out-of-control assignment water rights without any evaluation or study that includes climate change or other ecological damage.

It’s a tale that is told all over the country.

Water as a commodity and not as a human right

Chile’s constitution was written under Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. It protects private ownership of water and makes it an economic good. The 1981 Water Code allows the government to grant permanent and transferable rights to private owners without cost.

This created a market and made it difficult to regulate Chile’s water supply. For example, Aculeo did not have any audits done to manage consumption levels before the rights were granted by the state to water.

“The water problem in Chile is very deep. It’s understood as an additional resource to exploit,” Estefania Gonzalez, campaigns coordinator at environmental NGO Greenpeace Chile.

Protesters on the street cooperate to bring down a traffic post safely

Large-scale unrest in Chile erupted in 2019 due to deep social inequality

More than 1,000,000 people in the country don’t have access to safe drinking water. Some parts of Chile are experiencing more severe droughts as a result of climate change. Individuals and industries have been exploiting water for decades.

Thirsty, extractive industries such as lithium and copper mining drive Chile’s economy. Nearly 80% goes to agriculture, the most famous being the avocado. Each fruit requires 70 liters of water in order to grow.

The situation became so bad in Petorca, a town in Chile’s Valparaiso region surrounded by avocado production, that the government declared a “water emergency,” trucking in water and allocating each resident 50 liters (12 gallons) a day.

But Chileans are challenging status quo.

A new green vision for the Future

Currently, 155 elected representatives from across civil society, most of them independent and left-leaning, work to rewrite Chile’s dictatorship era constitution. This was a key demand of deadly nationwide protests in 2019 against deep social inequality.

An aerial view of a dried-out lagoon was for decades a big tourist attraction near Santiago

Aerial view of Laguna de Aculeo, a tourist attraction that was once a major tourist attraction near Santiago.

It is rare for a country that can create a new vision of the future and one where the environment is given the highest priority. 81 members of the Constitution Convention supported a Greenpeace campaign in order to protect water rights, and ecosystems, in the new Constitution.

Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida told DW that “we will end stockpiling, hoarding water.” She was a convention member and environmental activist. “We will stop land grabbing, water hoarding, and the building of landscapes of dry Valleys.

Vilches Fuenzalida, along with other delegate, stated that one of their priorities was to create a statute to alter the legal nature water. This would ensure safe access and sanitation for all Chileans. The bills will be discussed over the coming months. Each bill will require a majority of two-thirds to be included in the final document.

In March, millennial leftist Gabriel Boric will head up a new government after winning December’s presidential election. Boric, who came to power on a campaign pushing for environmental change, has said he will back the constitutional change.

“The whole nation is waiting for him. If he does not do anything, it will be a disaster. [about the water issues]We’re talking here about huge social consequences. We might be talking about an new social explosion,” Garcia-Chevesich stated, referring specifically to the protests in 2019. 

“But it will an estallido ambiental [environmental explosion],” added Garcia-Chevesich. 

Edited by Jennifer Collins 

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.