Take the subway from the smoggy, concreted center of the Chilean capital, Santiago, to the upmarket leafy suburb of Puente Alto at the end of the line. Flag a micro (bus), and watch from the window as you wind through scrubby countryside and climb foothills toward the snowy cordillera. There, you’ll find the Cajón del Maipo – a steep-sided box canyon, where three icy Andean watercourses flow together to form the Maipo River: the main source of drinking water for Santiago’s 7 million residents, and of irrigation for more than 120,000 hectares of agricultural land.
In 2009, I made that journey. I admired the clear water, rushing rapids and green valleys; spotted the three-meter wingspans of condors (Vultur gryphus) outlined against alpine skies; and scoffed pan con palta – warm white bread smothered in an oily, salty mash of the cheap and ubiquitous local avocadoes.
Now, 13 years later, Cajón del Maipo has changed. 2010 marked the start of a regional drought that continues to this day – the worst the country has ever experienced. Exacerbated by the development of an underperforming hydroelectric power project that diverts water from its upper reaches, the Maipo’s flow has reduced significantly, as has that of the Mapocho, the other river that feeds the city. This year, the government announced an unprecedented plan to ration Santiago’s water, using a four-tier alert system with measures ranging from water pressure restrictions to rotating water cuts, depending on the level of scarcity.
How did Santiago get so close to running its taps dry? And beyond these kinds of emergency measures, what might help keep the city’s faucets flowing in the future?
The politics of drought
Santiago’s water problems represent a confluence of crises. Climate change and natural variation are certainly at play, with overall rainfall reductions of 20 to 40 percent from previous levels across Central Chile. “Mostly because of climate change, the El Niño and La Niña weather patterns [which occur across the tropical Pacific] are becoming more unpredictable,” says Darío Soto, who serves as executive secretary of the Global Water Partnership, an international network that seeks to foster an integrated approach to water resource management and provide practical advice for doing so.
“So when it’s supposed to be raining, it doesn’t rain, and when it’s supposed to be the dry season, it rains,” he says. “We’re also seeing more and more that not only are the patterns different from what we’re used to, but also within one pattern the impacts are more intense.”
However, the dearth of water is also political. “There’s definitely a lack of rainfall. But it’s not just a meteorological issue,” says Christopher Vivanco, an agronomist at the Centre for Water in Arid and Semi-Arid Zones of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAZALAC) in La Serena, around 500 kilometers north of Santiago. “It’s also what we call a structural drought, where our policies are getting in the way of good water management.”
As is the case in so many elements of Chilean public life, water management is hamstrung by the rules laid out in the country’s 1980 constitution and associated policies, which were created by Augusto Pinochet during his dictatorship and sought, among other things, to embed neoliberal economic policies in ways that were difficult to change. Under the 1981 Water Code, landowners could register the water in their lands – not only from wells but also from rivers and otherwise – and acquire the rights to access and extract it indefinitely. This, of course, could have major impacts for ecosystems and water users further downstream. “In the ‘80s, water seemed abundant,” says Soto. “And the dictatorship at the time had the view that productivity should trump everything else.”
These water rights were traded in a largely unregulated market, and 90 percent of the country’s freshwater is now held by private actors, many of which are overseas companies that take the majority of their profits offshore. It’s now estimated that 80 percent of the country’s water sources have been over-granted and overexploited. Agriculture, forestry and mining companies in particular are sucking vast volumes of water from rivers like the Maipo – and the glaciers and aquifers that feed them.
Those creamy avocados I enjoyed back in 2009 represented part of a much bigger problem. Chile is the world’s third-largest avocado exporter, sending boatloads of its crops primarily to Europe and North America. But it takes about 320 liters of water to grow a single Chilean avocado: an uncomfortable extravagance when around 1.4 million Chileans (8 percent of the population) don’t have reliable access to drinking water or sewerage. Hundreds of rural communities now rely on emergency tankers to get enough to drink.
In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Water and Sanitation, Leo Heller, concluded that, “the Chilean government is not complying with its international human rights obligations if it gives priority to economic development projects over the human rights to water and health.” For decades, local activists have been saying the same, taking regularly to the streets with slogans like “Water is life,” “It’s not drought, it’s plunder,” and, “Water is not for selling, it’s for defending.”
“We’re in a genuine silent war,” says Magdalena Morgan, a geographer and water activist who belongs to a ‘hydro-feminist’ collective – a term she and her colleagues coined to highlight the relationship between gender and water access, use and management.
“Water is much more than a resource. It’s an element that is vital and sacred,” she says. “But the system of water rights was designed to separate people from nature, and it’s biased toward big companies and large-scale agriculture – mostly owned by men – while women do most of the water management at the community and household levels and experience the drought in their very bodies.”
Water relationships, reimagined
As the city rides the edge of running its sources completely dry, municipal planners are trying to adapt to the new, more desert-like climate. They’re rethinking green spaces, shifting from grass and thirsty trees to succulents and other desert flora. A combined five hectares of grass across Santiago’s parks has already been replaced.
At the national level, important shifts are taking place. In March this year, Chile’s new President Gabriel Boric signed a reform to the Water Code, which defines water as a common good and stipulates that household use must come before productive purposes. “It prioritizes access for human consumption and allows us to move toward a fair water transition and sustainable use of water,” Boric announced.
Boric and his supporters hoped to take water reform further through a draft new Constitution, which sought to redefine the country’s aquatic relationships, stating that water is essential for life and nature and should be protected in all its states and phases. It aimed for much more localized, watershed-based management of water resources, including ensuring that water rights don’t exist in perpetuity and cannot be passed on as inheritance. “I think it was a good draft: it included key topics such as communal management, the right to drinkable water and food sovereignty,” says Morgan. “Water flows with power, so it’s always going to be co-opted by those who have the resources to extract and exploit it. But the document made important progress on deconstructing that kind of management and elevating the voices of women in that process.”
It also sought to create a supra-institutional National Agency for Water, which Vivanco says was a welcome concept. “Right now, each of the institutions involved in water – and there are over 40 of them – are acting independently from each other,” he said. “So there’s lots to improve there in terms of decision-making and developing joined-up solutions.”
The draft was rejected in a plebiscite on 4 September, and it’s uncertain how much reform will make it into future versions. But Soto emphasizes that whatever legal changes are made, a cultural shift will be equally essential to a sustainable and just transition.
“This means that businesses, extractive industries, farmers and civil society leaders will have to sit together and discuss how water is distributed among the different sectors,” he says. “Let’s be clear: productivity is still a big priority, so we can’t just say, ‘Well, now we’re going to focus everything on household use of water.’ It’s more about how you level the playing field for all of the sectors and needs and find solutions together in a holistic way. I think that’s the part that will take more time and require a lot of support from the government and other actors.”
“That’s definitely going to be a huge challenge: how we manage the change in each of the watersheds; how we move forward with developing these more holistic resource management plans,” agrees Vivanco. He also notes the urgent need to tighten regulations to boost water efficiency, particularly in the agricultural sector, and boost the general population’s knowledge about using the resource carefully – and commitment to doing so. “There are some big weaknesses that we still need to resolve, especially because Chile is one of the countries predicted to suffer most from water shortages by 2040,” he says.
But even with a task list that long, Vivanco feels hopeful: the crunch has come at a time when change is possible. “I’m actually quite optimistic at this point, that even with the amount of available water decreasing, we are in a good position to make the shift that’s needed to manage it better for everyone,” he says.
Morgan, however, is cautious of the risk of an ‘old wine, new bottles’ situation. “Things could easily continue just the same, because we’ve had so many years of neoliberalism now, in which we didn’t have the power to manage things for ourselves,” she says. “It’s going to be a long process, and we’re going to have to work hard to secure the system and rights that we want – and then create the structures that will sustain them. We’ve made a great start, but we’ll only realize our hopes by continuing to work for them.”
This article is part of a series on cities and water management. Read about Santiago here and Cape Town here.