Chile's lower house approves reform of water code

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A bill to reform Chile's water code, which prioritizes its use for human consumption, has been approved by the country's chamber of deputies.

Deputies voted 63 in favor, 32 against and there were three abstentions, according to a congressional release.

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Approval in the lower house was five years in the making, as the bill was first introduced during the government of former president Sebastián Piñera.

The bill establishes a series of changes to the water code that has been in effect since 1981, among which is a 30-year limit on any new water rights granted after the bill becomes law. That limit can be extended. This represents a major change from the current rules, in which water rights are granted in perpetuity.

Critics of the current system say that this has led to speculative acquisition of water rights, especially by large corporations like agriculture, mining and energy companies, which have amassed huge swathes of rights in the event that operations in their areas of influence are expanded.

As such, the bill has faced harsh criticism from the business community, which has said that it has introduced uncertainty into the business climate, already shaken by a series of reforms carried out by the government of President Michelle Bachelet.

The reform also establishes a series of protected areas, thus prohibiting water rights from being granted in glaciers, areas under official biodiversity protection and high-altitude wetland areas known as bofedales, located in the northern regions of the country.

The bill also strengthens the role of the national water authority (DGA), giving the agency more power to act in times of water scarcity in areas where resources are on the verge of being depleted.

The bill now goes to the senate.