Maria Christina Fragkou – Hydrofeminist collective La Gota Negra/ Department of Geography, University of Chile
Chile is globally renowned for its neoliberal politics, imposed during the military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990, and the implications these have had on water management, crystallised in the infamous Chilean Water Code that has been studied extensively by critical scholars on water policy and markets. The main implications of the Code are the separation of water rights from land rights, the free and perpetual assignation of the former to applicants, and the lack of prioritisation between water uses (Fragkou and Budds, 2020). These core conditions enabled buying and selling water like any other market commodity through the transactions of water rights (Budds, 2009), leaving to the markets to ‘naturally’ allocate water in the most profitable activity, while restricting State control or intervention. Some of the effects provoked by the extreme commodification and privatization of water resources in Chile include the creation of water conflicts, the accumulation of water rights by mining and agricultural companies (and subsequently generating scarcity for disempowered actors), speculation and privatization, and the transformation of Chile in a vast operational territory that provides raw materials to global production networks (Bauer, 2015; Larraín and Schaeffer, 2010).
Downscaling the impacts of Chilean water policy on the domestic or personal scale reveals a frustrating and precarious reality for many Chileans, especially women in urban informal settlements and rural areas. The extreme precarisation of living conditions for poor and marginalised people are intimately linked to wider structures of an absolute lack of State welfare politics, substituted by partial and emergency subsidiary policies. Chilean politics and politicians have created and perpetuated a map of socio-spatial inequality and segregation, in both urban and rural Chile, deepening social class divisions.
A social uprising that preceded the pandemic in October 2019, literally shook the country up and brought forward the failure of Chile’s neoliberal and extractivist model that had promised development and wealth for all (those who try enough). Amid claims for better and public education, healthcare, pensions, and social welfare, managing water as a public good was one of the main claims of Chilean citizens; claims that have led into a demand for revising the 1980 Constitution, created and approved by the military junta, one year before the Water Code had been implemented.
The health crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic provoked only came as an ironic twist that proved social demands to be righteous, urgent, and vital for the survival of Chilean lower classes, where more than 50% of the workers receive a monthly salary less than 400 pounds. Sufficient and safe water supply and sanitation are major allies in restricting the propagation and expansion of the coronavirus global health emergency, emphasised by a series of United Nation’s programmes, including FAO, UNICEF, the UN Development and Environment programmes, and the International Organization on Migration. First, sufficient water quantity guarantees hygiene practices such as frequent hand and clothe washing and showering after returning from work. Second, good water quality and adequate sanitation are necessary for safeguarding public health, since hospitals are collapsing with COVID-19 cases and it is common for patients to contract the virus while visiting them for other reasons. Finally, in households with no running water, people (typically women) have to fetch water from water reservoirs in public spaces, breaking quarantine rules and risking infection. In informal settlements, these are usually reservoirs that are filled with water tanks; this water is not considered as safe by people, who usually boil it before drinking. In what follows, we portray two emblematic cases of lack of running water in Chile, that demonstrate how it is the poor and marginalised communities that suffer from water shortage, thus being more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Image 1. People helping each other amongst State ignorance of the pandemic in areas struck by the megadrought in the wider Petorca region (source: Diario La Quinta de Valparaíso).
One of the places that suffer historically from lack of running and safe water are informal settlements, typically disconnected from formal electricity and water networks (Contreras et al., 2019). Along Chile, there are about 800 campamentos hosting more than 47.000 families, most of them located in the outskirts of urban centres. The lack of running water is dramatic under the COVID-19 pandemic, as people cannot comply with hygiene practices of frequent handwashing to prevent contagion, or carry out everyday tasks as washing clothes and housecleaning. Some communities are illegally connected to the grid, while others are supplied with water through water tanks; the price of this (non-potable) water is several times higher than distributed by sanitary companies. In any case, these settlements don´t have sewers, thus worsening hygienic conditions, especially for children and senior citizens.
Another example are rural areas with limited or null water access due to a variety of reasons, including lack of infrastructure, expansion of intensive agricultural and forest monocultures, and a drought that affecting the country during the last decade. According to recent data, 47% of the rural population doesn’t have regular water access, with more than 71.000 households supplied with water through water tank trucks in 2017. Petorca is a world-renowned case of water scarcity attributed to water accumulation by agribusiness that resulted in depriving local communities and small-scale farmers from water. As a result, most rural potable water supply systems (comités de agua potable rural) depend on water tank trucks or have to disrupt water supply at nights to save water, making difficult to maintain hygiene recommendations. The quantity of water distributed by trucks was gradually reduced from 200 to 50 litres/cap/day, barely a third of the volume recommended by the World Health Organisation, causing a series of drastic reactions from civil society. The Chilean Institute for Human Rights (INDH) filed an appeal for legal protection against the Chilean State due to its failure to guarantee water security for Petorca’s residents; Barbara Astudillo, an ecofeminist activist, also filed an appeal at the UN for the same reason, while congressmen and civil society organisations have demanded the expropriation of water rights in order to guarantee the right to water for local communities.
These two cases depict the close connection between poverty and lack of water, and their impacts on public health, in neoliberal Chile. It was only 5 months ago that the Chilean Senate declined a motion for transforming water into a public good. Nowadays, Chile has over 9,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 1 million of population, the highest rate worldwide. The road to social and environmental justice is long and difficult for Chile, but its people, despite being invisible to the government, do not seem to render easily.
PS. Amongst the numerous campaigns that aim to help communities affected by the pandemic, The Association of Chilean feminist geographers and Vivienda Migrante foundation are organising a campaign for gathering funds for women in two campamentos that have not received any State assistance. You can find more information here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CBbGrPNJdSL/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Bauer, C. J. (2015). Water conflicts and entrenched governance problems in Chile’s market model. Water Alternatives 8(2): 147-172.
Budds, J. (2009). Contested H2O: Science, policy and politics in water resources management in Chile. Geoforum 40(3), 418–430. DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2008.12.008
Contreras, Y., Neville, L., González, R. (2019). In-formality in access to housing for Latin American migrants: a case study of an intermediate Chilean city. International Journal of Housing Policy 19(3), 411-435. DOI: 10.1080/19491247.2019.1627841
Fragkou, M. C. and Budds, J. (2020). Desalination and the disarticulation of water resources:Stabilising the neoliberal model in Chile. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 45(2), 448-463. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12351
Larraín, S. and Schaeffer, C. (2010). Conflicts over water in Chile: between human rights and market rules. Available at: http://www.chilesustentable.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Conflicts-over-Water-in-Chile.pdf
Header image source: Radio Universidad de Chile