Wild rivers: A law to conserve and restore them

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Puelo River. Photo: Alvaro MontañaPuelo River. Photo: Alvaro Montaña
By Macarena Soler
Editors note: The following is from Issue 20.
Seen from space, the Earth is mostly blue. It is estimated that close to 70 percent of the surface is covered by water, and the oceans contain a little more than 96 percent of all the water on the planet. Just 3 percent of the water on the globe is fresh water, and part of that is found in rivers, which are essential and irreplaceable for maintaining terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
In our current scenario of climate change and accelerated biodiversity loss, the river conservation has a fundamental role. They transport the CO2 present in the atmosphere that, after being captured by rain, is transported to the ocean; an enormous sink that contributes to mitigating climate change. Rivers are also essential for wetland conservation, where around 40 percent of the world’s species live. Furthermore, the conservation of fluvial ecosystems diminishes the risks associated with climate change and are vital for sustaining the water cycle.
According to the United Nations, Chile has seven of the nine criteria for vulnerability to climate change, which means the task of protecting its rivers should be a priority for the state. Moreover, according to a study carried out by the University of Chile within the framework of creating a National Water Balance undertaken by the General Water Office (DGA by its Spanish acronym), there is between 10 to 37 percent less water available in our country. In legal and environmental terms, our rivers are threatened and in distress, and it is becoming more urgent to have adequate data for their protection.
Despite being quite regulated, Chile only has one form of protection for rivers: it is called a “flow reserve,” incorporated to the Chilean Water Code in 2005. Only the president of Chile can grant it, but he can only exercise that capability when at the same time partially denying a specific request for water use rights presented by a particular entity, and only as long as there is water available in the river, which is a situation that nowadays is truly rare and exceptional. According to data from the DGA, as of June 2018 there were 43 flow reserves, of which just six were for environmental reasons. Nevertheless, the flow reserves do not provide protection to all the components that ensure the health and functionality of rivers.
Fundación Geute Conservación Sur is promoting a declaration of flow reserve for four rivers in Chilean Patagonia (Puelo, Futaleufú, Baker, and Pascua) as a first measure to achieving future comprehensive conservation of their ecosystems, whose nature and importance to the nearby communities, as well as their multiple permitted uses, such as fishing, boating, and sporting activities, are of enormous importance to Chile.  
The Wild Rivers Law jointly promoted by Fundación Geute Conservación Sur and non-governmental groups such as Ecosistemas, Terram Foundation, and International Rivers, aspires to establish a legal protected status that will place rivers and their associated ecosystems as a principal objective for conservation and restoration. In this way, it seeks to organize the territory of their ecosystems in order to safeguard their natural attributes, landscape, recreation, and productive uses. The proposed law gives protection to rivers the importance it should have in the realm of our public policy and urges the state of Chile and its policies to act promptly to settle an outstanding debt with its rivers.
The author, Macarena Soler, es founder of Fundación Geute Conservación Sur.