Chile is the only country in the world where water is privatized, according to the Water Code dating from the Augusto Pinochet era. This is precisely one of the priorities that the new Constitution wants to change. The country, which has one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, also has almost a million of its inhabitants living in rural areas without a formal supply of drinking water.
In Petorca, one of the communes that make up the Chilean region of Valparaíso, the cistern trucks that supply its inhabitants with drinking water are a regular part of an increasingly desert landscape.
They circulate seven days a week, at almost any time and are vital for almost half of the commune: more than 30,000 people live without drinking water, according to data from the non-governmental organization Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and the Protection of the Environment (Modatima), that has been fighting for decades to understand water in Chile as a fundamental right with priority for use by humans.
Recently, a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court filed by the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) recognized water as a fundamental right and ordered the Chilean State to provide 100 liters a day to the inhabitants of Petorca.
“It is not that enough, but for us it is a little more enough because until now we only had 50 liters a day,” explains to France24 Margarita Guerrero, the person in charge of providing water every afternoon in the town of Los Bronces, where about 50 people live. . In that sector of Petorca, they have water for 45 minutes a day. In winter it is a daily luxury that at other times of the year is only limited to twice a week. “We are used to taking care of water,” he says, “it is life that touches us,” he adds, stating that 15 years ago the river dried up “and from there we are living only on trucks.”
But 100 liters does not give much, especially in places in the middle of the field where animals and agriculture are fundamental. “Agriculture there is not much to say. If there is no water, there is no way to plant ”, adds Margarita.
Living with 100 liters of water “is very terrible because you have to give water to animals, because this water is not for animals, but if you had a kitten and asked for water, you would give it water, right? Because he also has the right to water ”, Juana Saavedra, a cattle breeder and resident of the Los Bronces commune, explains to France24, who states that she has had to buy water for her animals, although she cannot always afford it, since her pension is very low.
Manual engineering to take advantage of water in Petorca
In Juana’s house there is a small-scale engineering system to take advantage of every drop of water. The bathroom plumbing is connected to gutters that feed small plantations and their plants. In his patio there are several buckets of water filled with sanitized water for emergency use and many pipes and empty cans ready to take advantage of any drop of rain, although in these times the rain in that commune is scarce.
“Here the bad years are suffered a lot, a lot, a lot. Gentlemen who had 300 goats were left with 40. The water suffers a lot and the drought continues, ”says Juana.
“We all have a right, yes, but here the right to water is not respected, at least for us who are young, we are not big businessmen,” concludes Juana, who hopes that the new Constitution of Chile will recognize water as a fundamental right, that is prioritized for people and not for private use, as it is now.
Not far from Juana’s small farm, the agribusiness uses private water rights enshrined in the Constitution of the dictator Augusto Pinochet for a crop that requires huge quantities: avocados for export, many for Europe. The liter per second of water can cost up to $ 19,000 in this area, in other regions of the country the prices can be even higher.
Water, a speculative business in Chile
“Petorca is the national epicenter of the violation of the right to water, the model of dispossession of water, associated with agribusiness, particularly avocado production, on hill soils”, explains to France24 Rodrigo Mundaca, spokesman and one of the founders of Modatima and current governor of the province of Valparaíso, since the elections of May 15 and 16 in Chile.
“In Chile, water is the object of profit, usury and exclusion, and it is placed at the discretion of the extractive industry. It is there where water is prioritized but not in safeguarding the life of the communities ”, denounces Mundaca affirming that this model has killed the possibility of small-scale agriculture that was previously seen in the area.
“Today the water business is a speculative business, which has no regulation, which is governed by the codes of supply and demand and where the State has no interference,” continues the activist.
For Mundaca it is “dramatic” that in these times of pandemic there had to be “judicial rulings by the courts” instead of the State guaranteeing access to water for its inhabitants.
“We are the only country in the world that has privatized its water sources and water management,” adds Mundaca. The current Constitution of 1980 of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) “is a Constitution of privileges not rights, a Constitution designed to make the economic groups and dominant political groups rich in the country.”
“In Chile, the private legal regime for water is constitutionally enshrined” which specifies that the 1981 Water Code is the theoretical institutional device for water administration in the country. Those who hold water rights in the country “They can go to the market to buy, sell or rent water.”
Mundaca quote a study from the University of the Americas, UDLA, which states that “in Chile there are 29,001 holders, owners of consultative water use rights, which are consumed, basically concentrated in the agricultural and mining sectors,” he points out. “1% of them, that is, 290 water owners in Chile, concentrate 80% of all the rights to use water in the country, today there is effectively a monopoly on water.”
More water on paper than in the Chilean basins
“The big businessmen at the moment have more water on paper than the water that actually exists in the Petorca basins. It will come at a time when the water in the basin is going to run out ”, Gustavo Valdenegro explains to France 24 until recently, the mayor of Petorca during the last 12 years of drought. “Six or seven years ago, one could find water at 20 meters”, but that is not possible now due to the drought added to the big businessmen “who are massively building deep sources at 150/180 meters, that deep well it traps all the water and leaves no water for those with shallower sources ”, he points out.
Valdenegro regrets that “this system of plantations that occupy all the water, destroyed the peasant family agriculture practiced with great honesty by the small farmers of our commune” and has created unemployment.
He also regrets that in Chile there is no regulation of the territories and there is no limit to planting, there is no regulation. “Here there has been a lack of will” from the State, he affirms with pain and anger.
The privatization of water is one of the priorities to be changed in the new Constitution that will be drawn up by the 155 people elected also in the May 15-16 elections. However, Mundaca warns, from experience that he has lived in the form of death threats to his person and his family, threats also suffered by other Modatima members, that “there is also going to be a very strong resistance from the dominant sectors in the country, which have built their fortune from the water business.”
Meanwhile, the avocado business is growing and entrepreneurs are already looking for new places where they can exercise their water rights when the channels in this area are completely exhausted.
“Entrepreneurs here are already thinking about and buying land in the seventh region (Maule Region, in the south) because here the water is going to run out and they are going to continue with their business. It is a profitable business that grows 30% annually, ”says Valdenegro.
On our way through Petorca we come across several dry river beds, inhospitable moors that bear witness to a better past. The children who live in Petorca do not know what a river is, they have never seen one.
“That is insane,” concludes Mundaca, who is not willing, now from the Valparaíso government, to stop fighting this battle.