The Chilean Water Code: A Dictatorial Legacy

SANTIAGO – With Chile facing a historic drought, the government has announced the need for water rationing. Experts point out that this could be avoided by changing the current Water Code. Congress has made attempts to do just that but has had no luck.

Chile has been hit with a record-breaking drought that has left the country with an average rainfall deficit of 75%. This has threatened Chile’s vast agricultural industries as well as Chile’s diverse ecology, causing economic losses of about US$620 million and risking 50,000 jobs. It has also left rivers like the Mapocho with a 63% decreased flow between November 2018 and November 2019.

Drinking water reservoirs have also been hard hit, and left with only 21% capacity, making this a humanitarian disaster in the making.

Agriculture minister Antonio Walker stated that the ministry will implement measures to help those affected by the droughts by creating infrastructure that will take advantage of the water that remains.

In March 2019, the Ministry of Environment launched a campaign to incentivize shorter showers, and in December of that same year the Ministry of Public Works launched a similar campaign focused on teaching people how to conserve water in other ways on a daily basis. 

Pablo García, one of Chile’s few hydrologists, however, points out that it is extremely difficult to manage water when it is privatized and that the easiest way to fix it is to make drastic changes in order to ensure that the state is the owner and administrator of this natural resource. The issue is that in order for the government to do this, it would first have to change the Chilean Water Code, which is easier said than done.

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A dictatorial legacy

The Chilean Water Code was created in 1981 during the Pinochet dictatorship as a complement to the constitution, establishing the limits and boundaries of the Chilean water systems, how the government manages the water systems and each citizen’s rights to exploit that resource.

Since then, it has been changed six times, but most of these reforms were focused on specifying certain aspects of the law, like the 2006 modification that clarified the issue of subterranean waters, or the latest change in 2018 that specified who is in charge of supervising the waters.

Many ecological activists and experts now, however, are calling for more comprehensive changes to the code to remove its most controversial parts.

The biggest issue of the current water code is the fact that it doesn’t explicitly protect human consumption, meaning that private companies can use the scarce water that is collected for their own use, leaving citizens dry. This is what happened in Petorca, where different companies were able to obtain the rights to use the water in the region thanks to their political clout, and, as a result, many people in Petorca were forced to sell off their dry unusable land.

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Attempts at changing it

As a result of the latest droughts, the Chilean senate tried to change the constitution to devote the water sources to the citizenry. A two-thirds majority is needed to change the constitution, however, the senate only managed to achieve 24 of the 29 votes needed, leaving the water rights unchanged.

The argument for keeping the water code intact boils down to the claim that it’s up to the executive power to make sure that citizens receive their fair share of water and that changing the water code wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Another obstacle to changing the code is the fear that in order to allow the government to take the water rights from private businesses it would require redefining private property in the constitution and, thus, giving even more liberties to the government to expropriate.

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