Water Is a Key Issue for Chile’s New Constitution

“We’re writing a new Constitution today and the topic of water is inescapable. We must make decisions that affect special interests in favor of the common good.”

By Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – Those writing our new Constitution urgently need to change the legal status of water to permit more equitable access and distribution. We must put the needs of nature and the population over and above those of commercial activities. We must also establish a new norm for the use of the natural resources we hold in common, favoring the communities over the companies that today legally own that vital fluid.

My official relationship with water began six years ago, when, together with the Union of Rural Potable Water Systems of the Petorca River watershed, I helped found the first office of hydric affairs in Petorca. That event led me to witness the vulgarity of scarce water being hoarded in huge tanks for use in the industrialized irrigation systems on the hills. I also could see the consequences of the violent model of water distribution being implemented in Chile.

A UN special report on the climate crisis lends expert support to the discussion about water. It warns that the process of desertification is rapidly advancing towards the central zone of our country. Valparaiso currently faces the worst drought of its history, with a 75% rainfall deficit. Similarly, Petorca has maintained a hydric deficit above 80% for over 10 years. This situation is repeated across the whole country: at this time, 184 communities have been decreed in hydric scarcity.

However, the climate crisis isn’t the only cause of the emergency we’re facing today. Our rivers and water sources are being overexploited.  In 2015, there were already 110 overdrawn aquifers in the country. Simply put, these aquifers are overexploited because users are allowed to take out more water that what the river can recharge.

On the other hand, there’s also excessive hydric demand on the ecosystems, and these keep the aquifers from refilling. For example, the demand for water to sustain avocado production is between 5 and 14 times greater than that of the natural desert scrub ecosystem.

Water grows scarcer, but not equally for everyone. It’s cause for outrage, seeing that there’s water to irrigate hills of avocado orchards while the families living in the area have no water to drink. This situation was legalized in Chile’s 1980 Constitution that’s still in force. The document leaves water distribution in market hands – that is, in the hands of those who own water rights, who receive it free and in perpetuity.

Today we’re writing a new Constitution, and the topic of water is inescapable. In the face of this scarcity, we must make decisions that impact special interests in favor of the common good; whoever claims the opposite is one who must cede their excessive privileges. Any real solution to the crisis we face implies reducing and redistributing water consumption, instead of monopolizing it.

The draft of a new norm, “Water Statute: human access, organic and other transitory dispositions”, is the fruit of work done by different collectives and groups affiliated with Modatima, MAT, and Eco Constituyentes. These proposed standards have support from 83 of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They present a global solution for confronting the topic of water in Chile.

The norms proposed establish that there’s a human right to water and sanitation, since they represent essential guarantees for life, dignity and health. Every person, without arbitrary discrimination, has the right to sufficient, secure, and acceptable potable water, free of contamination, physically accessible and economically affordable for personal and domestic use. In addition, it sets priorities for water use. First is the human right to water and sanitation, together with the health and equilibrium of the ecosystems. In second place are the ancestral uses of indigenous peoples; and, in third place, food sovereignty. The use of the water that remains can be defined by each local area.

This statute would end the commercialization of water and establish it as a natural common good. It means that the State will authorize water use, but such permits can’t be appropriated, marketed, or transferred, and will be temporary and subject to user obligations. In addition, it recognizes that the indigenous peoples and nations who preexisted the Chilean State hold collective title to the waters that existed in their lands and territories.

We want the new Constitution to end the marketing of water and the scandalous hydric inequality we experience today. With the realization that we confront huge special interests, we need the support of everyone to establish a new way of treating nature: more just and respectful of the situation of water in Chile.

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