Chilean lawmakers approve a decade-old reform on water code

Chile has voted for a reform of the Water Code initiated 11 years ago. Water will be considered a national asset for public use but all of the country’s water management issues won’t be solved.

Greenpeace campaign Chile water access
Greenpeace launched a petition asking to make access to water a constitutional right in Chile | © Greenpeace

On January 12, Chilean Senate unanimously voted for a reform of the Water Code a day after the bill was passed in the Chamber of Deputies.

With the reform, water is declared a “national asset for public use” which means access to and use of water is a right belonging to all people living in the country.

Before Senate, the Chamber of Deputies massively agreed on the code’s amendments with 129 votes in favor, 2 against and 2 absentees. The law will be sent to the president for promulgation.

The reform has been in discussion for the last 11 years. The Chamber of Deputies first approved a text in March 2011. But the bill was only sent to the Senate in 2016, which rejected it in 2021. Then, 18 amendments were refused, which ignited the creation of a mixed commission to reconcile differences between the two law houses.

According to Greenpeace, more than 47% of the rural population does not have a formal drinking water supply and no Chilean is practically guaranteed the right to access it.

Access to drinking water an inalienable human right

In the bill, access to drinking water and sanitation becomes essential and inalienable human rights that must be guaranteed by the State.

The code emphasizes that “use for human consumption, domestic subsistence and sanitation will always prevail, both in granting and limiting the rights of use“.

Moreover, rights given for water use will not be indefinite anymore. Instead, there will be renewable concessions granted for maximum of 30 years. Speculating on or monopolizing rights will be forbidden. Water rights would also be suspended or cancelled if they are not actually used.

It also aims to guarantee more water access to rural communities and indigenous territories. The State will need to ensure that the integrity of lands and water is preserved and existing water will benefit indigenous communities.

As for respecting ecosystems, drainage systems will be forbidden in several wetlands in four regions of the country.

Access rights, as water is defined in the bill, also exclude the exploitation of glaciers. Chile, notably with Patagonia, is thought to be home to 80% of South America’s ice, which approximately spreads out 20,000 km2, the size of a country like Israel.

The General Direction of Water will receive more powers to implement the Code. Its prerogatives include the possibility to suspend water rights. It will also be tasked to decide on distribution priorities or declare temporary reductions of water use when necessary for instance.

But the amendments will not solve all of Chile’s much delayed water issues. The pinpoint blocking the legislation was the future of current rights. They have already been granted for 90% of basins and 50% of aquifers.

Water rights already granted will remain perpetual

In Chile, water legislation pretty much privatizes access to and use of water. And rights are later traded on the market.

Chile’s system practically creates an appropriation of water. In the world, water is distributed to the private sector for a specific use, but not for selling access rights, which here is done on a national scale” said Félix González, president of the Green Ecologist Party, to Diario Concepción.

And the law will not change the rights to water that have already been acquired for perpetual use, which limits much of its effects on current issues.

For Diego Ibáñez, a pro-environment lawmaker and party member of President-elect Gabriel Boric, the reform will not solve the country’s issue of “water looting“, he told DiarioUChile. “We have a structural problem that has to do with the distribution of water. Some actors concentrate power today. They will put their economic interests before those of the territories and communities and that will not be solved through this Water Code.

On Twitter, he acknowledged progress but regretted there was no majority “for an integrated and democratic management of the basins or to submit the current perpetual rights to all new rules“.

That’s why two lawmakers voted against the revisions in the Chamber of Deputies.

Diego Ibáñez and Greenpeace, among others, push to see water access considered a constitutional right. Chile’s Constitution is being rewritten by the Constitutional Convention.

The bill now needs to be enacted by the president but some articles may be reviewed by the Constitutional Court.

Read more about Chile

Reforma al Código de Agua avanza a sus pasos finales tras su aprobación en la Cámara, Chile's chamber of deputies, January 2022, Free access

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