The Other Water Crisis in Chile: Drinking Poison

SANTIAGO – Chile is suffering from severe drought and when referring to the water crisis in the country one often talks about quantity. But another, possibly even more dangerous water crisis in Chile has to do with the quality of water. Dozens of municipalities in Chile suffer from high amounts of arsenic in their water.

The drought in Chile, the lack of rainfall and the problems the agricultural and tourism sectors are facing are topics that dominate the news in the country these last weeks. Nature gets irreversibly damaged and desertification is a reality for more regions. Government, entrepreneurs and scientists look at solutions to continue to offer the country’s population drinking water, while water reserves are shrinking. But aren’t these bodies focusing too much on the matter of quantity?

Coyhaique: officially the most contaminated city in Chile

The Invisible Water Crisis

Exactly one week ago, the World Bank released a report titled “Quality Unknown: The Invisible Water Crisis”. The report looked at the world’s water quality and concluded that both developing and developed countries suffer from polluted drinking water, driven by industrial sectors.

When zooming in on the situation in Chile, the most contaminating chemical in the ground water is arsenic. The mining activities in the northern regions have impacted the natural water resources for decades and caused a situation that is seen as irreversible: despite all efforts from the sector and the government, the local population continues to suffer.

According to the report, making use of data from the Chilean Superintendence of Sanitary Services (Superintendencia de Servicios Sanitarios), in 84 of the 392 municipalities “the level of arsenic in water reached exactly the threshold of 10 µg/L fixed by WHO. Large parts of the volcanic north of Chile had access to arsenic-contaminated drinking water until 2017.”

The report adds that “when arsenic in drinking water is above the WHO recommendation of 10 µg/L, hospital admissions increase by 30 percent for abdominal pain, vomiting, and dehydration, health issues that are commonly related to arsenic exposure in the medical literature”.

Machi Celestino Córdova visits his rewe

Under the Shade of Industry

The direct link between industrial activity and arsenic pollution of drinking water is confirmed by the fact that mostly the northern regions suffer. After the mining boom in 1950s, residents from towns near mines were exposed to arsenic levels 17 times above the WHO recommendation of 10 micrograms per liter. Antofagasta was one of the biggest cities to install a treatment plan in the 1970s, but up to this very day, lung and bladder cancer risks remain 40 percent higher because of the arsenic contamination that occurred between the 1950s and the 1970s.

But not only the North suffers. According to a 2008 investigation, approximately 1.8 million people, or 12% of the country’s population, live in arsenic-contaminated areas. One example of a commune that has suffered from arsenic poisoning in its drinking water, caused by nearby industrial activities, is Quintero.

After a toxic cloud had hundreds of citizens taken into hospitals, Valparaíso’s regional health Seremi reported that between 2010 and 2015, the annual average of arsenic concentration in the area exceeded 23 times the limits established in European REACH laws, which regulate such substances in the EU. Industrial companies couldn’t be held responsible, as Chile doesn’t have a law that limits the use of certain chemicals by industries.

Bottled Water Offers No Solution

A solution for affected regions could be drinking bottled water. But not in Chile, says a recent study on the “Chemical composition of Chilean bottled waters”. They examined the quality of ten (not named) brands of bottled water “available for sale in Santiago”. According to the investigation, a third of the samples analyzed exceeded values of arsenic as set by both national and international (World Health Organization) standards.

Even if Chileans living in areas where arsenic contaminated their drinking water turn to bottled water, they might find themselves exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic. The need for proper solutions for the Chilean water crises grows: shouldn’t we have drinkable water, before having enough drinking water?

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