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The Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, where in recent years huge icebergs have broken off due to climate change.
The Grey Glacier in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, where in recent years huge icebergs have broken off due to climate change. | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Chile’s ‘Climate Change Constitution’ provides hope for a nation home to mega-drought and privatized water

Chileans — who have suffered a 13-year-mega-drought compounded by the effects of a free-market water policy — will vote on a new Constitution with a focus on addressing climate change in September.

The mega-drought in Chile has entered its 13th year, making it the worst drought the country has seen in 60 years. More than half of Chile’s population lives in an area suffering from extreme water scarcity. Santiago, the capital, has made unprecedented plans for water rationing.

In a country that was once water-rich, the ongoing water emergency is almost entirely man-made. 

Climate change plays a significant role in the matter, but so does the country’s free-market water policy; which inadvertently prioritizes the needs of extractive industries over a community’s right to access water. 

“They stole everything from us, they even took away our dignity,” Zoila Quiroz, a local resident from Petorca, Chile told EFE, “There was a time when we had to choose whether to take a shower or wash our clothes. We had no choice but to fight.” 

A Dictatorship-era Water Code

Chile is the only country in the world that specifies water as private property in its Constitution.

The 1981 Water Code in Chile, which currently determines the allocation of water use rights, was written under the regime of Augusto Pinochet — a dictator who rose to power after US involvement in the 1973 coup to oust democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. 

The Water Code, along with many other policies, was drafted by the ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Chile became a laboratory experiment for the neoliberal free market. 

While the reforms worked wonders, earning Chile a spot as the richest country in South America, they also brought with them extreme inequality that extended to water rights.

Water rights in Chile are handed out by the Chilean Water Authority, the Dirección General de Aguas (DGA), free of charge, and with no expiration date. Landowners are allowed to register water on their property and acquire these ‘water rights’ for consumption or non-consumptive uses. As long as there is proof of sufficient water in a river, water rights are handed out by the DGA to individuals or businesses. These rights are completely governed by the free market, and the government has no powers to interfere, making it private property. 

“The water rights are given in perpetuity to these individuals — they can rent their rights, sell their rights. The rights are very valuable,” Jonathan Barton, an Associate Professor at the Instituto de Geografía, Pontifical Catholic University told Currently.

“They are also concentrated in a few hands – mining companies, big agricultural firms.”

About 80 percent of Chile’s water resources are privately owned by large mining, energy and agricultural companies.  

The Mega-drought and Green Gold

In the dry, central Valparaiso region of Chile, an industrial lust for “green gold” or avocados, arose in the 1990s. Where once peas, potatoes, and beans were grown, fruit plantations took over, making Chile one of the world’s top exporters of avocados. The water-intensive avocados grown here are exported to Europe and Asia, drying up the region already facing water scarcity due to the drought.

The scarcity is complicated by the ownership of water rights, which, due to the Pinochet-era Constitution, is separate from land rights. Investors in the 90s bought cheap, dry available hillside land for plantations unsuited to avocados, and were able to irrigate it because they owned water rights. Now, because of climate change, water is unavailable in the region, and the DGA no longer hands out water rights to people, leaving locals and smaller farms most vulnerable. The businesses and individuals who already own water rights, however, are free to sell or rent their rights at the price they please.

Images on 4 April 2016 (left) and 24 March 2022 (right) show the dramatic effects of the drought on the Peñuelas Lake in Valparaiso, which is now almost completely dry. | Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite imagery

 “Water was given away to the elites. Nowadays, we don’t have water,” said Verónica Vilches, leader of the Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and the Protection of the Environment (MODATIMA) in a webinar.

“We have to learn to live with 20 liters of water a day and [our] water is also polluted. It’s not just me who is saying this, there are government documents saying that it is contaminated with high rates of iron, manganese, and other pollutants. We are nothing but survivors in the area of Petorca because water is completely used by these people who are landowners and corrupt politicians.”

Water and environmental defenders, especially women and Indigenous people, face brutal attacks, surveillance, and intimidation for their activism. Vilches herself has faced death threats

A New Climate Change-Focused Constitution

After nationwide protests against social inequality and privatization in 2019, Chileans voted for the dictatorship-era Constitution to be rewritten in the following year, and for it to be carried out by a democratically elected Constitutional Assembly.

“The new Constitution is a door of hope for new generations,”

The new Constitution was finalized on July 4 this year, and includes a host of reforms aimed at addressing the water issue and climate change. Citizens will vote to pass the Constitution on September 4.

“The new Constitution is a door of hope for new generations,” said Josefina Correa, former Political Director of Greenpeace Andino. 

“If we need to safeguard the future of the country in the next 20-30 years, it is important that we recover the public control over water. The new Constitution allows the reassignment of water, prioritizing consumption for humans.”

Guaranteeing everyone the “human right to water,” the new Constitution establishes a National Water Agency responsible for the “sustainable use of water for present and future generations, access to the human right to water and sanitation, and the conservation and preservation of its associated ecosystems.” Currently, sanitation is also privatized in Chile.

Increased protections of minerals, fossil fuels, and glaciers are also included in the new proposed constitution; although 70 percent of Chile’s population relies on glacial water, mining companies have caused extreme glacial retreat. 

Borrowing from Indigenous tradition, this new constitution outlines an autonomous decentralized body to protect the legal rights of nature and the Chileans who interact with it.

The IPCC report shows that the region will suffer from intense droughts and wildfires in the years to come. The Andes will continue to thaw, causing “high-magnitude” flooding and making water more scarce. 

If passed, the Constitution will become a model for countries across the world for its bold climate commitments; Chile will have rejected policies defined under a military dictatorship and made way for a truly people-led code of law to live by. The Constitution’s climate-focus will enable Chileans to embark on a journey safeguarding their lives and futures in the climate emergency. 


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