Drought-stricken Chile looks to reform water industry

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet called for a deep reform of water rights and regulations as the country faces a severe drought and over-utilization of certain basins.

Bachelet's announcement – made in her first report to congress since taking office in March – follows a filing by a group of senators last month of a water nationalization project .

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"It's not only a question of water scarcity, deepened by a large drought, but also of an over-exploitation of water basins and a misuse of water rights," Bachelet said.

"That's why we're willing to recognize water as a national good of public use, deeply modifying water regulations," she added.

While Bachelet did not disclose further details, the bill under discussion in congress calls for the integral management of water basins and aquifers to improve efficiency, and calls for the state to prioritize water usage.

Currently, Chile awards water rights to private consumers, who can trade those rights in any way they like.

According to Chile's environment ministry, 73% of the country's water is used for agriculture, while industry uses 12%, mining 9% and householders some 6%.

However, in some areas, such as Copiapó valley in the north, where water is particularly scarce, mines account for up to 31% of water usage, and in some areas of region I in the far north, copper producers use up to 60% of 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 over-utilization of aquifers has depleted water resources dramatically.