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Chile's overall potable water coverage is among the highest in Latin America, at 96%, with urban areas touting an impressive 99% coverage. However, access is significantly lower in rural areas, where 75% of the population has access, according to UN figures.
The public works ministry (MOP) has been working to improve access to potable water to rural communities in northern region II, which presents some difficult conditions including water scarcity and isolated communities.
In March, MOP signed an agreement with the regional government and regional development department Subdere to complete studies for a project to provide a permanent solution to the town of Calama.
BNamericas asked MOP's regional waterworks division director Gabriel Valdivia González about the challenges facing the division and its plans to overcome them.
Valdivia: The big challenge we have in the public works ministry and the waterworks division is to reach a good percentage of service for the communities that still don't have a potable water system as such.
There is also a challenge to find solutions that are economically viable, because of the cost that these designs entail. We have problems in terms of the quantity and quality of water. And to develop projects in the region we have to bring in firms from elsewhere, which can also increase costs.
So that's the great challenge - to move forward despite having these three strikes against us. That is, trying to design projects with moderate costs despite the high cost of carrying out projects in the region; trying to find the best solution, especially with technology always advancing, and finding the best viable alternative in terms of the operation and maintenance required by communities.
BNamericas: How many APRs are currently operating in the region?
Valdivia: To date there are at least 10 APR committees, each with its respective [potable water] plant. Some are having their treatment systems modernized and others, three or four of them, are building new treatment systems.
BNamericas: What plans does MOP have to expand the systems?
Valdivia: We have a goal to reach at least 10 more communities with APR projects from now until 2014. What we haven't done in 20 years, we want to accomplish in three more years.
We're not far off; we're working at full capacity. Our people are very committed. There's a certain responsibility we feel because really, these communities can't continue with this water deficit. There's a huge gap in terms of access to potable water and we've taken up that challenge.
We're in good shape; we're going to close out this year with at least two more projects ready for execution in 2012.
BNamericas: What sort of investment will those projects require? How will they be financed?
Valdivia: Together they will cost some 1bn pesos (US$2.19mn). The projects have joint financing, which includes the regional government and MOP's sector funds and one of them also has some financing from the Escondida mine.
BNamericas: How is Escondida involved in the project?
Valdivia: The financing from Escondida is part of an agreement signed in 2008 that supports potable water projects. They agreed to contribute some 2bn pesos for several projects, particularly in the community of San Pedro de Atacama.
BNamericas: Are you pursuing additional agreements with mining companies to finance more projects?
Valdivia: There have been some conversations with Escondida, which is very interested and shares many of our goals, and SQM. Those are the two main companies. I've spoken with both of the mines, and we plan to meet next week to resume the conversation. These agreements will bring about many complementary benefits to the communities in terms of operating and maintaining the systems, which is the most difficult task for the APR committees when these systems are first installed.
BNamericas: What does this maintenance work involve?
Valdivia: There's obviously the cost of maintenance. But there's also the operation of equipment, which can be of medium to high-level complexity and for that they need technical support from entities that have the necessary knowledge and experience.
That's where we're looking to apply this strategy of support to the potable water committees. We're beginning with a specific focus on the San Pedro de Atacama and Quillagua communities. After that we'll be looking at Calama, assuming of course we can generate interest from other mines.
BNamericas: When do you expect to have these agreements in place?
Valdivia: The companies are waiting for us to deliver the reports on the maintenance costs so that we can finalize them. We've set a deadline to complete those - for Escondida it will be in about three weeks and SQM in the next week or two.
We're also working with a multidisciplinary group, which includes [MOP's] general water authority (DGA), [the ministry of] agriculture, the national irrigation commission and we're thinking of involving [the ministry of] tourism to develop strategic intervention programs for these communities. It's not just about giving them water, but providing them the tools to develop in the best way possible and in a way that's sustainable.
BNamericas: What sort of budget does the waterworks division have?
Valdivia: The amount established for this year from MOP sector funds was 600mn pesos for APR projects, which includes maintenance and new projects. For next year, that's likely to be increased to a budget of some 800mn pesos. The waterworks division, on a central level, is making a larger commitment. It's a two-way commitment - if we as a region don't generate projects, we'll receive less funds.
What we're doing now is creating a portfolio of projects. That is if I ask for funding with the completed technical plans needed to carry out the project, the sector will finance the projects.
There's a clear determination to move forward, to close the potable water gap in the most vulnerable communities. We're working towards reaching that goal, and maybe not just meeting it, but surpassing it.