Chile and Bolivia head to the ICJ over the Silala River

Chile and Bolivia once again face off in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague to litigate their dispute over the Silala River. Chile maintains that the river is international and flows naturally through its territory, while Bolivia argues that it was artificially diverted and therefore belongs to them. The contents of both lawsuits remain secret, but details will be disclosed as soon as the oral arguments phase begins.

Public hearings on the dispute over the waters of the Silala River in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague begin Apr. 1. The issue was submitted by Chile in 2016 and has now reached the oral arguments phase on the status, course, and use of the natural resource. Oral presentations will run from Apr. 1 through 14.

Both countries presented written pleadings in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and have been awaiting this next phase in which agents and counsel directly address the ICJ.

The rights to the Silala River, which originates in Bolivia and then flows through Chile before ending in the Pacific, have been hotly contested by both countries. According to Chile, the river flows towards Chile through a ravine which has formed naturally in the last 8,400 years. According to Bolivia, the river was artificially diverted to Chile during the first half of the 20th century.

Chile argues that it has the right to use the river’s waters and that doing so conforms to international law because it is an international river. Bolivia disagrees. It maintains that it has exclusive rights to the river, as it is only “artificially” part of Chile. According to Bolivia, Chile should be paying for the rights to use the river.

If the Silala River is determined to be an international river, Bolivia then theoretically has the obligation to cooperate with Chile on any planned measures regarding it – a situation Bolivia wants to avoid at all costs.

Bolivia has also argued that the Silala is a “non-renewable immobilized resource” and that, given that it does not rain enough in the area where it originates, the surrounding aquifer cannot be replenished. But the river also plays a very important role in Chile, as its location in the arid Atacama Desert makes it a crucial water resource for the development of the Antofagasta copper mining region.

The Silala River and the Escazú Agreement

Execution of the Escazú agreement is also complicated by this same issue. Some officials fear that the agreement will privilege Bolivia’s position regarding the river and could even rekindle the dispute over access to the Pacific, which was only just resolved by the ICJ in 2018. The agreement states that landlocked Latin American countries like Bolivia should be given “consideration and cooperation” in their struggles. Many therefore worry that this clause could be interpreted in a way that could be detrimental to Chile.

The actual contents of the parties’ lawsuits remain secret and will only be disclosed when oral arguments begin.


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