MAC: Mines and Communities

Water War In Tarapacá, Chile

Published by MAC on 2006-02-26
Source: The Sunday Nation ()

Water War in Tarapacá, Chile

by Leyla Ramírez / Arnaldo Pérez, The Sunday Naation

26th February 2006

A lagoon in the Salares (salt flats) of Huasco contains one of the few sources of freshwater in the entire high desert plains of Chile's Region I, and mining company Doña Inés Collahuasi (owned by Canadian Falconbridge) wants to utilize the water source for its operations. The community says no, and accuses the company of having dried up other locations. War has been declared.

From time to time, the oasis town of Pica is dressed as if in mourning. Black banners wave over the houses in the zone, showing this declaration of war by the residents of the oasis Their reasons are clear. First, they accuse the company of poor environmental management in other salt flats and lagoons, such as in Michinca and Coposa.

Michinca simply dried up, while the flow of water from Coposa was reduced from 90 liters per second to 20 in only five years - they were supposed to only reduce the flow by half in 25 years of exploitation. These cases mean only one thing for farmers: Huasco is in great danger and they are too. Secondly, they say that there are no trustworthy technical studies certifying that the laguna of Huasco does not share subterranean connections with other springs and water sources, sustaining the oasis, and permitting the cultivation of fruit in the zone. It goes without saying that this High Andes wetland is protected by national and international treaties, owing to its unique ecosystem.

Because of all this, Luz Morales (80), president of the Pica-based Association of Agricultural Landowners of Resbaladero, Bandas and Las Animas, is not going to give up easily. The disputes with the mining company over water have stretched back over a decade now: ample time to denounce the unsustainable extraction of water in the region and to observe the beginnings of a water crisis which will end up affecting the entire population, agriculture and tourism in the region.

The situation is complex and doesn`t only put Huasco at risk Huasco, but allthe High Andes' salares in the region of Tarapacá. This is what Claudio López, director of the Corporation of Study and Development of the Norte Grande, believes. He outlines the task of this new environmental authority: to solve this problem in the face of a mining industry that is gambling on growth in a country with very weak water protection legislation - and in one of the most arid regions of the planet.

Water Given Away Free

Beginning in 1994, Quebrada Blanca (Noranda), Cerro Colorado (BHP Billiton) and Doña Inés de Collahuasi (Falconbridge), as well as Anglo American and Mitsui & Co. [and Nippon Mining and Metals], came to mine in the zones. Their arrival brought some great advances in the regional economy, principally in the transportation infrastructure. But they also brought degradation of the environments, livestock and traditional agriculture, damages causedboth by actual mining and the exploitation of water, which in Chile is free: the current Water Code permits companies to stake claims on aquifers with the Direcciono General de Aguas (DGA, or General Office of Waters).

To stake a claim to water rights, a company must finance the technical studies, the prospection and the visits of personnel of DGA to test the capacity of the aquifer. Nothing more. If they abide by the law, their water rights remain forever. The new owner of the water can sell, rent, or utilize the water as long as it exists.

The amount of water which flows into the communities of Huara, Iquique, Pica and Pozo Almonte is about 4,587 liters per second. Of this, about 60% is destined for use by the mining companies. "In the short-to-medium term, the mining companies could double their current water use, which threatens the very existence of this resource," says Arturo Neira, water engineer and director of the Ecological Development Initiatives Council of Iquique. Reforms in the Water Code last June added new elements to the laws, but did nothing to end the free distribution of water to companies.

The permissive law promotes speculation: This is what the residents of Pica, Colchane, Poroma and Huaviña claim. There are requests in process for the exploration by individuals and companyies which would utilise another 3,700 liters per second - about four times the current amount of potable water used by the Province.

The subdirector of the National Corporation of Indigenous Development (CONADI), Cornelio Chipana, warns that "there exists a probable market of speculation in the solicitation of water rights. Approving the requests of these individuals and corporations will mean a direct decline in agriculture and livestock of residents here. The number of requests is alarming, and the majority of the claimants do not live in the region and are using "borrowed" addresses. Furthermore, they have nothing to do with any projects of economic development."

Underground Water Networks

The General Office of Waters (DGA), has to date not yet given a final answer to the request of mining company Collahuasi to consume 903 liters per second in Huasco. However, Jaime Muñoz, head of the department of administration of water resources of the DGA, has stated that, after the technical analyses conducted by his organization, the exploitation of water in the zone could have "some" levels of impact on the Salar of Huasco and that this will necesitate the production of an Environmental Impact Evaluation before permission is given for the extraction of water.

"Now we are in the first stage of analysis, which is to know what happens to this ecosystem under different levels of water extraction". The people of Pica are opposed to any type of concession, because they believe that the water system of Huasco is connected to their oasis and springs through subterranean water courses.

However, the DGA says that the oasis is not in danger: "There are no worries that Pica will lose its sources of water, because the water supplied to their spring does not come from Salar de Huesco. The origin of the waters of Pica are rainwaters from the High Andes, which run off and filter down into the springs to the west of Pica" said the DGA in a statement.

But, neither the DGA, nor the mining companies, can be truly sure that a connection between theSalar and the oasis does not exist. And nobody is promising to offer 400 million pesos to the agricultors in the event that their water sources dry up.

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