Chile senators call for water nationalization

Thursday, April 24, 2014

A group of Chilean senators have tabled a constitutional reform to secure state ownership of water resources, mandating authorities to provide potable water and sanitation services.

The proposed reform eliminates individual rights to water resources and reserves for the state the "absolute, exclusive, inalienable and unlimited right to water resources".

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The bill was proposed by government and independent senators, making its approval likely, and is in line with President Michelle Bachelet's government program.

The proposed legislation also calls for the integral management of water basins and aquifers to improve efficiency.

"The state should provide basic services needed to guarantee this right and potable water and sanitation access," according to the bill.

It also calls for the state to prioritize water uses. Currently, Chile awards water rights to private consumers, who can trade those rights as they wish.

According to Chile's environment ministry, 73% of the country's water goes to agriculture, while industry uses 12%, mining 9% and residents some 6%. However, in some areas such as Copiapó valley in the north, where water is scarce, mines account for up to 31% of the available water, and in some areas of region I in the far north, copper producers use up to 60% of the water.

Authorities have acknowledged that the water situation in Chile is worrisome following a five-year drought. Region IV in the center-north, for instance, is facing its worst water crisis in a century, while in some areas overexploitation of aquifers has reduced water resources dramatically.

The country receives 53,000m3 of rainwater per person every year on average, eight times more than the global average and 25 times more than the minimum needed for sustainable development. However, 84% of the water that runs through rivers flows into the Pacific Ocean unused.

Last month, Bachelet named a special delegate to review the sector and advise the government on water efficiency, to help coordinate policies between ministries and draw up plans to improve water management. Chile has a plan to invest US$4.87bn until 2022 to increase reservoir capacity by 30%, canal networks by 1,000km and irrigated land by 253,000ha.