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The Chilean Water War

The Chilean Water War

Small farmers in Chile are suffering from a severe drought. The privatized water supply exacerbates the consequences. Chile is the only country in the world where the water supply is almost 100 percent privatized.

The goats of Miriam Pizarro search in vain for food on dust-dry hills. “I had to buy grass for my animals because nothing grows here. If it doesn’t rain this year, I don’t know what to do,” she says. Over 40 of their goats have died in the past few months. “The young animals were malnourished and the pregnant goats died at birth because they did not have enough strength.” Pizarro is a goatherd and lives from her animals. It sells goat cheese and milk. “If we don’t have water, we can’t survive here,” she says.

The goatherd Miriam PizarroThe goatherd Miriam Pizarro

The agricultural industry uses 80 percent of the water

The shepherdess lives near the small village of Tulahuén in the Limari Valley in northern Chile. It is one of the regions most affected by the severe drought that the country is currently experiencing. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, over 34,000 animals died last year due to the drought. The Limari valley was once green and fertile, today it is like a desert. The only green is the monocultures of the agricultural industry: avocados, grapes and citrus fruits are grown here, the majority of them for export.

Chile ranks 18th among the world’s countries suffering from high water stress. This shows the water risk atlas of the World Resource Institute. Water stress means that more water is consumed than comes naturally – for example due to rain. In Chile, almost 80 percent of consumption is accounted for by the agricultural industry.

Only the irrigated large plantations of agricultural companies are greenOnly the irrigated large plantations of agricultural companies are green

“There is a water war in Chile”

Raúl Cordero is a climate researcher at the Universidad de Santiago and suspects that water stress will increase in the next few years because water consumption in the agricultural industry is constantly increasing. “The drought mainly affects the poor rural population. The countryside has rich residents with large estates and plantations, and there are poor residents who have fewer opportunities to access water,” he says. “Climate change not only changes the climate, but it also exacerbates social conflicts. There is a water war in Chile.”

The small farmers, whose livelihood is at stake, feel the effects of this war in particular. Alejandro Cortés and his partner Laura López also live in the Limarí Valley and keep goats and sheep. They also have a few nut and fruit trees on their property and grow grapes. But you only get water every 19 days and it is becoming increasingly difficult to supply all plants and animals with it. “The entrepreneurs in the agricultural industry control the water supply here. They steal the water from us and are supported by the state,” says Cortés.

Alejandro Cortes and Laura LopezAlejandro Cortes and Laura Lopez

Water rights in the hands of a few entrepreneurs

Chile is the only country in the world where water supply is almost completely privatized. The water law that makes this possible, the Código de Aguas, was written in 1981 during the military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Although this law defines water as a “publicly used national good”, it enables the state to grant free and unlimited usage rights to third parties. Since then, water has been considered a freely tradable commodity regardless of land ownership. That is why water rights are now concentrated in the hands of a few large entrepreneurs from the agricultural, mining and forestry sectors. As water becomes scarcer, the speculation market is also booming: private individuals buy water rights at low prices without making use of them and then sell them at a higher price.

“Water should be a human right and not a business”

In the Limari Valley, many smallholders have sold their water rights to large companies out of necessity. “Water should be a human right and not a business,” says López. “The Código de Aguas is criminal because it has made water privately owned. It places economic interests ahead of the needs of the population,” added Córtes. He is the president of the Comunidad de Aguas del Canal Mollar and is committed to ensuring that the members of the community have enough water. To do this, he has to deal with agricultural entrepreneurs again and again. 

His neighbors, who belong to another community, do not even have access to drinking water. The canal that was supposed to provide them with water has grown up in the mountains and the owner of the property doesn’t care about the maintenance. The men over 70 years of age, therefore, started cleaning the sewer themselves a year ago. Córtes helped them apply for financial support because they couldn’t read or write. “We have to support each other,” he says.

Alejandro Cortes helps his neighbors clean a sewerAlejandro Cortes helps his neighbors clean a sewer

Privatization of the water enshrined in the constitution

For Cortés and López, life in the country is also a form of resistance. “We take care of ourselves and live autonomously. We don’t need a supermarket or a shopping mall. That is why the rural population is a danger to the neoliberal system,” says López. “The government wants us all to move to the cities so that it can control us better and the rural industry can do what it wants.” The two hope for a change through the new constitution, which the protest movement in Chile has been fighting for since October.

Political scientist Octavio Avendaño conducts research on water conflicts and water legislation in Chile: “Water is scarce because it is concentrated and it is a result of privatization and not climate change,” he says. The only way to change that is to change the constitution. “The privatization of water is laid down in the constitution. This also stipulates that property rights are more important than fundamental rights. This affects not only small farmers but the entire population.”

Access to water is a requirement of the protest movement

A new constitution that places the needs of the population before economic interests and guarantees everyone access to water is, therefore, one of the demands of the protest movement that Chile has been grasping since October. In the Elqui Valley, north of the Limarí Valley, the members of the Asamblea en Defensa del Elqui sit down(Assembly in Defense of the Elqui Valley) to raise awareness on the subject. The gathering has existed for six years, but it has grown much larger since October. “In the past, 20 or 30 people took part in the protest for the water, since October there have been over 1,000,” says Manuel Rojas. “What is happening in Chile is no coincidence. It is the result of years of work by thousands of people in different territories. Capitalism is in a crisis worldwide.”

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