Disputes over dwindling supplies of water helped spark a popular revolt against the country’s neoliberal economic model.
By Laura Millan Lombrana y Sebastian Boyd
Scientists and academics from around the world gathered at Chile’s Museum of Fine Arts on the evening of Oct. 18 for the close of a three-day conference on climate change in a nation that’s endured a decade-long drought. Under the glass dome of the elegant Beaux Arts building, Stanford researcher Susanne Moser warned in a keynote speech that policies to cool a burning world must foster community or fail.
Outside, demonstrators chanted, burned barricades, and charged at outnumbered police. It was the beginning of a social explosion that’s rocked the South American nation, one exacerbated by the unprecedented dry spell. “It all seemed pretty theoretical until then—transformation, climate change—and then we went outside, and there it was,” says Moser, an expert on adaptation and resilience. “It was an awakening, from talking about it to being in it—with the tear gas in your eyes.”
The trigger for the demonstrations was discontent with inadequate pensions, health care, and education systems. Less attention has been paid to the role an extended drought has played in priming Chileans for action. Worries about access to water have been bubbling to the surface in a nation that’s gone further than almost any other in privatizing an increasingly valuable resource. Under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Chile became one of the first countries in the world to cede management of its water utilities to foreign companies.
The country’s free-market consensus has grown brittle over the course of almost three decades since the end of the dictatorship. It finally shattered this year, which happens to have been one of the most arid on record. Higher temperatures and record-low river flows forced farmers to abandon crops and leave cattle to die. Taps in dozens of villages ran dry, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dependent on trucked-in water. “The drought left us thirsty for revolution,” read a sign at a demonstration in Santiago in October.
Chile isn’t the only place where a warming planet has contributed to political strife and social unrest. Just a year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase fuel taxes to fight climate change set off protests that paralyzed Paris and other parts of the country for months. In Syria, crop failures that drove up the price of bread helped trigger a civil war that’s killed hundreds of thousands. “The environmental and the social crisis that we are living in Chile, Latin America, and the entire world are two sides of the same coin,” said Chilean Minister for the Environment Carolina Schmidt, who spoke to Bloomberg News during a visit to Madrid this month to attend the COP25 climate talks. “We can’t take care of one without taking care of the other.”
Extreme weather often manifests itself suddenly: Think wildfires in California or cyclones in southern Africa. But in Chile, it’s been a slow-motion catastrophe. From 2010 to 2018, the central region of the nation suffered what scientists call a “megadrought,” with annual rainfall as much as 40% below normal. “This year has been another disaster. The meteorologists say it rained eight or nine millimeters, but we haven’t seen any of it,” says Pascual Varas, who lives in Chincolco, a village in the Petorca valley about 200 kilometers (127 miles) north of Santiago. A year ago, he had 76 cows and horses; only 30 remain and he expects to lose more over the South American summer.
The crisis has been aggravated by the country’s legal framework. While many arid countries treat water rights as private property, Chile goes further than most. The 1981 Water Code enacted by Pinochet allows the rights to be owned in perpetuity and traded as assets. The framework gave investors security and helped foster the development of the mining, agribusiness, and forestry sectors. But it’s privileged the needs of business above those of communities.
One stark manifestation of the drought is the disappearance of the Laguna de Aculeo, a body of water south of Santiago that was once a popular site for water sports. Between 2010 and 2017 annual rainfall in the area fell by half, while water use by farmers and residents in the nearby city of Paine has continued to climb. Aculeo officially ceased to exist as a lake in 2018.
As the nation turned ever drier, citizens became angrier. “No one was expecting this explosion when it happened, but it made sense to me when it did,” says Anahi Urquiza, an environment and anthropology professor at the University of Chile. “Over the past 10 years in Chile, we have seen small explosions that pointed to these underlying tensions.”
Among them was a fight for water in the Petorca valley where, for the past few years, small landholders and cattle ranchers have been accusing growers of avocados, a water-intense crop, of pumping more than allowed from rivers and canals and of digging illegal wells under riverbeds. “Farmers couldn’t understand how their fields were drying up while avocado growers were expanding up the mountains in places where only cactus grow,” says Rodrigo Faundez, a spokesman for Modatima, a local advocacy organization representing ranchers and small farmers. “Our demand is very simple: We ask the state to stop holding the right to private property above human rights.”
Protests in Petorca have intensified in the past two years. At one point, farmers blocked a road linking the province’s two main towns with a barricade of burning cow carcasses. Frustrated residents, who now depend on water that’s trucked in, also took to the streets.
Demonstrators’ demands for a more equitable distribution of water resonated widely in a country afflicted by growing income inequality. The country’s two biggest cities, Santiago and Valparaiso, were the scene of street protests that in several instances turned violent. The eruptions prompted the administration of President Sebastian Piñera to cancel a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in mid-November, an event that China’s Xi Jinping and U.S. President Trump had planned to attend. Piñera’s government also pulled out as host of the United Nations-sponsored COP25 talks, which moved to Madrid.
A broad swath of Chileans have rallied behind the idea that the country’s Pinochet-era constitution—a document that enshrines a neoliberal economic model—must be scrapped. A Nov. 22 survey by pollster Cadem measured support for that idea at 85%. Lawmakers have come up with two different mechanisms to draft a new charter, and citizens will chose between the two in a plebiscite in April.
“For the first time in 30 years, we have the possibility to redefine the rules of the game,” says Urquiza, the professor, who’s hopeful some good will come from the process. “This is a country combining a great exposure to climate risks with an incredibly deteriorated environment and little capacity to manage its territory. Altogether, it’s a time bomb.”
Leer en Bloomberg.