Chile Considers Constitutional Reform of Freshwater Rights

New legislation could extend government control over private freshwater resources.

Harbor of ValparaísoChilean President Michelle Bachelet’s proposed constitutional reform that recognizes freshwater access as a national security concern, and declares the resource a public good, cleared its first legislative hurdle earlier this month, according to the Inter Press Service and Reuters.

The legislative initiative, which was approved by the Chamber of Deputies, states that freshwater availability is more critical to national security than fossil fuels. The outgoing president’s effort has been praised by environmental groups and private sanitation companies.

“[The bill] opens a first step for resolving the crisis of access, contamination, concentration and overexploitation of water in Chile, and the degradation of watersheds,” a group told the IPS.

If the proposed reform pass and freshwater becomes “indispensable” in Chile, authorities would gain unprecedented control over the resources that would extend wherever the water travels. Chile has one of the world’s largest glacial freshwater reserves, with over 3,500 glaciers covering roughly 20,000 square kilometers. The government would be able to limit or restrict private owner’s water rights, as well as save freshwater from multiple sources for human consumption.

Meanwhile business associations, including the National Society of Agriculture (SNA) and the Mining Council, are concerned that the government could take valuable water away without compensation.

SNA President Luis Mayor said Chile faces distribution challenges—not shortages—that are better resolved through minor adjustments rather than major legislative overhaul.

The current constitutional language, passed in 1980 under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, stipulates that water is a privately traded commodity in Chile.

“Privatizing the water was an economic and strategic error,” Socialist Party Deputy René Alinco told The Patagonia Times. “In Aysén (Region XI), which I represent and where I live and plan to die, 100 percent of the water in the Baker, Pascua and other rivers belongs to foreign economic groups, like Endesa. People in Aysén and in Chile in general don’t have any power to recover that water. The situation in Aysén is the same across the country.”

Ninety percent of water rights for hydroelectric power are concentrated amongst three companies, according to the Free Competition Defense Tribunal.

The campaign to reassert state control over freshwater resources began in September 2008, the Times also reported. A group of politicians, Church leaders, environmentalists, indigenous groups and labor unions have united under the name “Recuperemos el Agua para Chile,” which translates to “Let’s Get Chile’s Water Back,” to garner support for the new bill.

In April 2009 the group intensified pressure for constitutional reform as climate change, pollution and industrial consumption increased pressure on Chile’s water supply.

“We think there’s an urgent need to change the legal framework,” Sara Larraín, head of a Santiago-based NGO, Programa Chile Sustentable, told the Times. “Without a doubt we must reform the Constitution. It’s going to take several years, but we have to start now.”

According to Larraín, Chile’s Parliament is expected to make a decision about the proposed constitutional amendment the end of its legislative term on March 11. That same day marks the end of Bachelet’s presidency and the beginning of Sebastián Piñera’s term. Pinera’s is the first conservative candidate elected in Chile since Pinochet.

Read more about the legislative developments in Chile from Inter Press Service, The Patagonia Times, and Reuters.

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