Candidates for Chile’s constitutional convention push for right to water
By Patricia Nieto Mariño
Santiago, May 13 (EFE).- Just a trickle of water comes out when Rosalba Quiroz, whose family have spent generations raising cattle in the central Chilean locality of Petorca, turns on the faucet inside her home on the banks of a dry river bed.
Many thousands of households are without running water in the Andean nation, where an estimated 80 percent of the liquid is the property of agribusiness, mining and energy interests.
So it is no surprise that 539 of the 1,373 people running in the May 15-16 election to an assembly charged with drafting a new constitution have signed on to “Suelta el Agua” (Release the Water), an initiative of Greenpeace Chile aimed at reversing decades of water privatization.
“The big farmers take what little water is left, they take it all from us. But we don’t want to leave the land because it is our life,” Rosalba said.
Every day, a tanker truck delivers 50 liters (13.2 gal.) of water to the Quiroz residence, an amount that is barely enough for domestic needs. Trying to grow crops or raise livestock is unthinkable.
A stern look comes over the sweet face of Rosalba’s 13-year-old daughter, Pascuala, when she speaks of living since birth with the reality that “a fruit plant receives more water than a human being.”
More than 3,200 homes in Petorca lack running water, Carolina Vilches, coordinator of the municipal Office of Hydro and Environmental Affairs and a candidate for the constitutional convention, told Efe.
“It cannot be that a big grower can dig wells and keep all of the water. They are wiping out the inheritance of the peasants,” she said.
Amid the now-arid landscape in Petorca are lush groves of avocado trees, cultivated with what water that once belonged to the community.
“Access to water is one of the great inequalities in this country,” Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun told Efe.
The situation is a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Under the constitution he imposed in 1980, individuals and companies can lay claim to water sources in perpetuity and without charge.
And those water rights can be bought and sold in an unregulated market.
Seven of the 10 Latin American cities where households pay the highest rates for water are in Chile, according to a study carried out by the Spain-based Aquae Foundation.
A third of the aquifers in Chile are over-subscribed in terms of water rights, Asun said. “They are draining all of the country’s groundwater.”
Chile is suffering from the most severe drought in the Western Hemisphere and research by scientists at the University of Chile indicates that water reserves in the northern half of the country are on track to shrink by half before 2060.
“There is 30 percent less rain in Petorca and this place is like a time machine: here you can see the future that awaits the rest of the country,” Mayor Gustavo Valdenegro told Efe.
Chile’s right-wing government announced in March a plan to create a Ministry of Public Works and Hydro Resources with an initial investment of $340 million.
Alejandro Sepulveda, an engineer active in the field, told Efe that while Chile needs to “develop infrastructure and a plan to address the drought,” incorporating a right to water in the new constitution would be “a good start.”
“The new constitution is our hope,” Rosalba Quiroz said. EFE pnm/dr