Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS
Picture: 123 RF / BORGOGNIELS

Santiago — Managing shrinking water reserves has become such a big-ticket item in Chile that the South American nation is giving H2O its own ministry.

The government has sent a bill to congress that will transform the public works ministry into the public works and water resources ministry, an entity that will oversee and co-ordinate the 43 institutions in Chile that deal with water.

Belatedly for water rights advocates, the government is trying to improve oversight of arguably the most privatised water system in the world. Broader unrest among Chileans over inequalities, the worst drought in more than a decade and climate change are combining to make water a key topic in the process to draft a new constitution. In parallel, legislators are debating changes to water regulations.

The challenge is highlighted by the water shortage in the country’s central region, where most Chileans live: it has seen rainfall decrease by almost 30% in the last 20 years.

“All studies agree that this situation will only worsen in the coming decades,” public works minister Alfredo Moreno  said. 

In Chile, the law states that water is a good for public use and that human consumption must be prioritised. But the constitution also underscores water rights as private property.

A study by Universidad Catolica’s Center for Water Law and Management found that among 92 constitutions worldwide, 31 made no mention of water and 10 said water was a human right. But Chile’s constitution was “the only one that explicitly enshrines private property over water-use rights”, according to a statement from the centre.

Many legislators, especially from opposition parties, want to change that. In recent years, cases have surfaced of local communities running out of water while nearby large farms continue to irrigate crops.

“The new ministry will help channel and lead that discussion,” Moreno said, adding that the goal is to ensure consumption as well as investment. “The rights have to have some sort of permanence over time otherwise that person won’t be able to complete its activities.”


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