QUINTAY, PETORCA, CERRO NAVIA – Frequent handwashing is one of the most widely recommended measures to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, but without access to clean water, thousands of Chileans do not have this option. For decades now, water has been unevenly distributed, with northern regions suffering most from water scarcity and contamination. Privatization, climate-change related drought, and now Covid-19 have exacerbated this problem, but citizens are taking a stand.
In Chile’s arid northern regions droughts are commonplace, but in recent years rising temperatures and reduced rainfall brought on by climate change have prolonged dry spells.
Legislation developed during the dictatorship has also aggravated the situation: The 1981 Water Code established each citizen’s rights to exploit that resource, but the code does not explicitly protect human consumption. In many municipalities, this has resulted in companies obtaining the rights to use the water in the region thanks to their political clout, forcing locals, particularly agricultural workers, to move elsewhere.
Industrial activity has also polluted many waterways. After the mining boom in the 1950s, residents from towns near mines were exposed to arsenic levels 17 times above the WHO recommendation of 10 micrograms/l. Antofagasta was one of the biggest cities to install a treatment plan in the 1970s, but up to this day, lung and bladder cancer risks in the region remain 40 percent higher because of the arsenic contamination that occurred between the 1950s and 1970s.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, but Chile’s Constitution has not followed suit, despite many attempts by various parties. And just as sanitation becomes more important than ever to limit the spread of Covid-19, citizens suffering under water scarcity are speaking out.
Locals Fight for Constitutional Change
Quintay, with just over a thousand residents in Casablanca municipality, has been affected by water contamination. In 2019, residents noticed “cloudy” and sometimes “coffee colored” water coming from taps, prompting some locals to “steal water from work” or only shower “with their mouths closed,” news outlet BioBio Chile reported.
Locals demanded governing bodies such as the rural potable water committee and the local health authority provide information about the water they were drinking, which they did not. Hence, residents financed an independent study. The results showed a long list of contaminants, such as iron, magnesium and nitrates, all in quantities that exceeded regulations. The health impacts of continued ingestion of these contaminants include increased risk of cardiovascular problems, disease patterns similar to Parkinson’s, and could even kill children.
In January, the residents took their case to the Supreme Court but a ruling remains pending. In response to such complaints, the Senate tried to change the constitution to give citizens the right to clean water. A two-thirds majority is needed for any change, however, and the Senate got only 24 of the necessary 29 votes. The upcoming constitutional referendum, which has been postponed until October, offers the next best chance to reassert a popular case for changing the water code.
Struggle to Uphold Clean Water Standards
In Petorca, an even dryer town north of Quintay, the river is barren, and residents have been depending on water truck deliveries for over 15 years. Since 2016, residents would receive 100l/person/day, but the increase in water demand since Covid-19 has halved this daily ration. “We are at high risk. We cannot maintain the hygiene standards that this situation requires,” one resident told Al Jazeera. She even worried that stricter quarantine measures could stop truck drivers from delivering water
But just as Covid-19 aggravates water scarcity in Petorca, it also shines a light on the necessity of this resource. And authorities are waking up. Petorca’s local government said it started talks with the Health Ministry to resolve the issue.
Drinkable Water Amid Lockdown
Santiago’s Cerro Navia district has no drinking water facilities, so locals depend on deliveries from the local council, but BioBio reported, they aren’t arriving fast enough. Furthermore, these deliveries typically prioritize residents belonging to economically vulnerable groups, as opposed to areas with specific supply scarcities. Police arrived to disperse a related protest in Cerro Navia for social distancing reasons, but locals still await changes to the delivery system.
#CerroNavia: En estos momentos tras diálogo con las personas que demandan falta de agua en el sector, Carabineros coordina y gestiona junto con la Municipalidad la entrega el camión aljibe. Personas comienzan a mover las barricadas para el ingreso de los suministros. pic.twitter.com/BaNTiOPMrB
— Carabineros de Chile (@Carabdechile) May 26, 2020
Clean Water in Abundance
Despite extreme water scarcity and poor quality, some areas enjoy clean water in abundance. Residents of Santa Augusta, a 10-minute drive from Quintay, live an entirely different reality. This luxurious coastal town is inhabited by businesspersons, politicians, and entertainment figures, and harbors 90% of the region’s water rights. Santa Augusta’s deluxe holiday homes, hotels, golf courses with sprinkler systems and artificial lakes are a testament to the area’s abundant water stocks. This contrast to the struggling residents of Quintay demonstrates that the issue is not just about insufficient quantity, but the management of water as a result of privatization.
According to London-based NGO Latin America Bureau, “the Chilean water model represents the world’s leading example of the free-market approach to water law and resources management. It treats water not only as private property but also as a fully tradeable commodity.” Affected residents around the country are arguing that ownership driven legislation is incompatible with government provided Covid-19 guidance which assumes Chileans have equal access to clean water. After decades of struggle, the novel coronavirus is worsening the problem, but also fueling public sentiment that clean water is a human right. Citizens are mobilizing, and only time will tell if their pleas will be enshrined in constitutional reform.
Shanti is a multilingual journalist, with a keen interest in Latin American politics, economics, and culture. Having studied languages and media at Cambridge University and Universidade de São Paulo respectively, she then gained editorial experience in the documentary film industry, with a specific focus on South American affairs. You can find her on Twitter @shantidurocher.