Access to and ownership of water is a key issue when the Chilean constitution is being rewritten. Photo: Katiamenfe. Source: Pixabay.


After a ten-year drought - Chile's new president faces several challenges

When Chile's newly elected president Gabriel Boric takes office in March 2022, he will take over a changing country. Chile has been plagued by a decade of drought and the issue of water management is high on the agenda when the country's constitution is rewritten. But there is a difficult balance between promoting the economic interests of companies and reducing inequality in the country.

The elongated country that stretches to the bottom of South America's tip has a varied climate with high glaciers, the world's driest desert, forest and fresh sea breezes. The country has great access to natural resources such as copper, iron ore and lithium, which has helped make Chile one of South America's richest countries.

But behind snow-capped peaks and miles of beaches, there is a problem that is growing bigger and bigger - the water shortage. A widespread drought has plagued the country for over a year decade. Climate change is clearly visible - dry winds, higher temperatures and less rain are drying up water reservoirs and leaving agriculture, mines and inhabitants thirsty.

Drought is a problem that several countries in the region suffer from. But one thing that sets Chile apart from its South American neighbors is the model used to manage the country's water resources. These are namely privatized, which means that a company can own the water just as they can own land. The model differs from other countries, where the management and infrastructure of water is sometimes private, but where the water itself is sourced from state-owned and regulated reservoirs.

The way water is handled means that in some places there is inequality between communities and private players. In the Valparaíso region, large avocado plantations thrive that require huge amounts of water, while the locals next to the plantation do not have enough. Instead, the state sends trucks of water to needy areas. Activist groups mean that there are often insufficient quantities and poor quality, and that it is also unsustainable in the long run.

It's not just avocado plantations that are absorbing the water - the mining industry requires also a lot of fluid. When the demand for lithium, which is used in batteries, among other things, increases as a result of the expansion of electrification, the water consumption in Chile also increases. The mining industry is an important part of the economy and the balance between developing entrepreneurship and guaranteeing the population access to water is therefore difficult.

"It's not drought, it's looting" is written on a wall in Valparaíso.
Photo: Carlos Figueroa Rojas. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

- Theft is institutionalized, the activist says Rodrigo Mundaca, in an interview with the global human rights organization CIVICUS.

He refers to the 1981 document which establishes water as an economic commodity. At the same time, according to the UN, access to water is considered a human right, which some believe is in conflict with the model Chile uses.

The model for water management was designed the year after the current constitution was written. This happened during the time of dictator Pinochet, who led the country into a neoliberal path with a focus on privatization and the free market.

A country in change

The constitution written in 1980, during Pinochet's time in power, is to be abolished and replaced by a new one. The decision was made through a referendum 2020, the year after major protests erupted over growing gaps and rising living costs.

The constitution will be written by a congregation of 155 members, all of whom are elected by the people. The seats are distributed with an equal number of women and men, and 17 seats are reserved for people from Chile's indigenous peoples.

The protests in Chile in 2019 led to the decision to rewrite the constitution. The issue of water supply in the country will be a central part of that work. Photo: Natalia Reyes Escobar. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Rewriting the constitution has a practical value - changing the constitutions can take the country on a new political and economic path. But there is also a symbolic value in dealing with the legacy of the dictator. The man who came to power in 1973 through a coup then ruled the country for 17 years. His military regime pushed hard on all opposition.

Under Pinochet and his economic advisers, also known as "The Chicago Boys", the country adopted various reforms that promoted free market and liberalization. And it worked - the country's economy grew rapidly and has sometimes been called the "Chilean wonder". But what also happened was a sharp increase in the country's economic gaps. The idea that privatization would provide more opportunities for education and thus reduce inequality did not work in practice.

And it was inequality and rising living costs that drove the population out into the streets in major protests in 2019, which led to the decision to write about the constitution. Dealing with the legacy of the dictator is therefore one of the reasons why the new constitution is important.

New president faces several challenges

Drought and inequality are some of the challenges facing the country's new president Gabriel Boric when he takes over in March 2022. In the 2021 presidential election it went worse for the traditional center parties. In the second round, left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric stood instead against right-wing conservative José Antonio Kast, and center-right voters were forced to decide which side they wanted to stand on. After an even battle, Boric won, largely because many young people went to the polls.

Gabriel Boric in the presidential election in Chile in November 2021. Photo: Fotografoencampana. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Despite the victory for Boric, the fact remains that 44 percent of voters voted for right-wing Conservatives. The two politicians are far apart, both in economic and social matters. One challenge for Boric will therefore be to create a dialogue with the other side, both to get through its policy and also to create cohesion in society, something that can come in handy when the country's constitution is rewritten.

And the issues of drought and inequality are high on the agenda when the Constitutional Assembly drafts the new constitutions. A first draft is expected to be completed in the beginning of July. It marks a clear point in Chile's history as its inhabitants can decide which way they want their country to go. But summer is still far away, and much can happen to tighten the difficult knots. With a new president at the helm, it remains to be seen how the country handles them.

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