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French construction giant Vinci is due to present basic engineering studies in June or July for a long-distance submarine pipeline to transfer water from southern Chile to the arid north, public works minister Laurence Golborne told BNamericas.
"This should give us a preliminary idea, at a very basic engineering level, of whether this option could be technically and economically feasible," Golborne said.
Vinci is working on studies with funding from the French government and in conjunction with Chilean technology transfer foundation Fundación Chile.
The initiative aims to transfer 15m3/s of water from central southern region VII to region I in the north through 1,600km of underwater pipeline to supply agriculture, mining and drinking purposes. Initial studies put the cost of the project at around US$3.9bn.
The transfer project is one of a series of measures the government is considering to solve the issue of water availability in northern Chile. From Santiago to northernmost region XV, freshwater availability per person is just 800m3/y, while regions from Santiago to region XII have 10,000m3/y per person.
Finding new sources of water is one of the most important challenges for Chile's infrastructure sector today, and the ministry considers desalination a viable option, according to Golborne.
The minister cited the examples of Israel and Spain, the latter of which produces over 3Mm3/d of water via desalination.
"We need to find new sources of water, and to that end, desalination will be an important contribution," Golborne said at an event held by the Spanish chamber of commerce in Chile (Camacoes).
Chile has been experiencing a severe drought for most of the past three years, and reservoirs in central-northern areas are currently at critical levels. The government has secured potable water availability up to the end of 2012, but is looking at alternatives to guarantee supply in the long-term.