Can Chile avoid water rationing?

Bnamericas Published: Friday, August 12, 2022
Can Chile avoid water rationing?

While human consumption isn’t at risk for now, water rationing could be on the horizon for some sectors in Chile if management does not improve.

“With high levels of water stress, some productive activities could be affected,” Julio Burgos, member of the public infrastructure committee of Chile’s School of Engineers, said in response to a question by BNamericas at a water resources webinar.

Water stress, i.e., when demand exceeds available resources during a certain period, is very high in Santiago and the north, while southern regions are not under pressure. 

In that context, agriculture, which concentrates 72% of Chile’s water use, could be facing restrictions in Coquimbo, Valparaíso, Metropolitan, Maule and Ñuble regions, which register high to moderate stress levels and the highest water use in agriculture.

The mining sector, meanwhile, could face cuts in Antofagasta region, although Burgos highlighted that the industry has made substantial efforts to reduce consumption.

Just 12% of water use is for human consumption, which is why the risk of rationing is very low currently, Burgos said. But management still needs to be overhauled to prevent rationing, he added.

Earlier this year, the government said eastern Santiago could face cuts next summer, starting in November, as it obtains water from the Mapocho river, which registers record-low water levels.

Burgos suggested water should be managed through special basins rather than nationally or through regions.

He said Chile is the only OECD country without basin-based institutions, and suggested a new type of agency comprising a technical secretary and a public-private committee, which would be assigned a specific basin.

“If we could manage this issue through the basins, human consumption obviously wouldn’t be affected,” he said, adding that Chile clearly isn’t on this path. 

Burgos admitted that the current water rights system, which grants private property rights even for sources that are dried up, is faulty, and that the changes in the proposed new constitution seem reasonable. 

“Having rights on a waterless basin is like having shares from a broke company,” he said, adding that the proposed constitution also includes basin councils.

Other recommendations for water management include making all future reservoirs multi-purpose, improve data collection on water, snow and glacier levels, and improve efficiency in sectors such as agriculture.

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