Ostensibly intended as a mechanism to allocate increasingly precious freshwater resources more efficiently and equitably, privatization of water rights is causing ructions in Chile. Water prices have skyrocketed in the wake of floods that contaminated the water supply of Santiago, the Andean nation’s capital city, home to 40 percent of the national population, some 7 million people.
As many as 1 million Santiago residents reportedly lacked water as of the end February. An already diminishing population of individual farmers, ranchers and self-sufficient agriculturalists and pastoralists, along with the rural merchants. small family-owned businesses that established vital, sustainable rural communities, are being undermined as a result.
In actual effect, the water pricing scheme is driving water rights further into the hands of the country’s wealthiest, typically family-centered and/or closely held business groups, and the multinational corporations with whom they partner. By extension, it could greatly exacerbate the division between the super-wealthy and wealthy as opposed to the middle and lower economic strata of Chilean society, thereby putting additional strains on the foundations of representative democracy as it exists there, the InterPress Service News Agency highlights in a recent report.
Privatizing water rights
Water rights in Chile are granted to concessionaires in perpetuity. In northern Chile, they are concentrated in the hands of large, international agricultural companies that export their products.
Smaller, family-owned farmers, ranchers and their families are being squeezed out, a trend that parallels the demise of the small-scale, family-owned farms and ranches in the U.S. Their plight garnered national attention in the mid-1980s, including from musicians and celebrities, who launched public advocacy campaigns and concert tours, such as Farm Aid, to raise awareness and galvanize action for change.
Hired by the corporate farms, transient, seasonal agricultural workers are taking the place of the farming and ranching families that formed the core and provided a solid, civic foundation for communities of long standing.
Chile instituted a program of land reform some 50 years ago that redistributed large swathes of land according to the maxim: “the land is for those who work it,” IPS’s Orlando Milesi points out. Social and environmental groups are proposing “a new land reform program in order to reclaim water as a public good.”
Drought bites; Prices soar
Exacerbating the problems, much of Chile is suffering through a drought. Tanker trucks are increasingly used to transport and distribute water to low-income neighborhoods in cities around the country. The number of villages, small towns, and urban neighborhoods without water and being supplied by tanker trucks doubled last year as compared to 2015, Milesi writes for IPS.
“In Chile, water has become a capital good, left to the discretion of speculators and separated from the land, while international jurisprudence indicates that it should be available for the preservation of life and food production, and only after that, for other economic activities,” water resources specialist and social/environmental activist Rodrigo Mundaca was quoted.
He zeroed in on the concept of the “green revolution” that gained currency internationally in the 1960s. The idea is being revived and updated today in light of advances in agricultural genetic engineering, distributed computing, and communications technology.
By and large, the original “green revolution” has come to be viewed as much, or more, as a vehicle to boost exports of U.S. agricultural products and equipment, technology and associated services worldwide as it was a means of feeding the world, as it was touted. The same is the case for the industrial, corporate-controlled model of national agricultural policy and planning in Chile today, according to Mundaca.
“The green revolution is a model that does not preserve natural assets. Our export model is associated with monoculture and we need to promote a new development paradigm based on a harmonious relationship with nature,” he was quoted by IPS.
Mining and mineral resources account for the largest share of Chilean exports, copper, which is controlled by the state and mining company Codelco, in particular. Chile also numbers among the 10 largest countries worldwide in terms of agricultural/food exports, however.
Water rights: Public or private?
A 1980 revision to Chile’s constitution changed water from a public to a private good. Water rights are regulated by the state according to what’s known as the Water Code, Milesi explains. The Water Code gives government regulators the right to grant water usage rights in perpetuity free of charge. That has led to numerous public claims of underhanded, backroom political dealing between foreign multinationals and the local political/business elite.
Then President Salvador Allende (1970-1973) expanded a program of water reform that included declaring water a public good that had been initiated by the government of Eduardo Frei (1964-1970), Milesi points out. President Michelle Bachelet has proposed amending the Water Code that is wending its way through Chile’s Congress.
Problems revolving around water rights and usage seemed bound to intensify and increase, not only in Chile, but throughout the Andes, South America and worldwide. The rapidly warming climate complicates matters further, and indeed, is a seen by climate scientists as a primary driver of water scarcity.
Andean glaciers in Peru's Cordillera de Vilcanota have receded 50 percent since the 1970s, with most of the losses occurring below 5,000 meters (16404 ft). Tracking the snowline across the mountain range in southern Peru, glaciologists from Brazil's Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul determined the ice caps that feed the glaciers are shrinking.
The social and economic impacts are already rippling across societies, such as Chile’s. “Conflicts over access to natural resources have been on the rise around the world and the situation is no different in this region,” Luiz Beduschi, an officer for Territorial Development Policies for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Latin American and the Caribbean region, is quoted in IPS’s report.
“The historical processes of agricultural reform, strongly promoted in different countries in the region, which in the case of Mexico was carried out 100 years ago, and 50 years ago in Chile, allow us today to once again discuss the widespread question of inequality, which arises from the global concentration of the ownership and use of natural resources, historically reflected in land ownership,” he said.
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