Chile’s House of Deputies approves Water Code reform

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Chile Sustentable By a vote of 63 in favor, 32 against and 3 abstaining, the plenary of the House of Deputies approved new legislation to confirm water is a fundamental human right. The decision will modify the Water Code in force since 1981, prior to democratic participation in the country.
Following general approval of bill, voting on specific provisions began. Provisions that succeeded in passing will prioritize water for human consumption and sanitation, conservation of ecosystems, productive subsistence activities, as well as guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples.
Among other reforms that will take effect from the moment the bill becomes law, the concept of perpetual water rights will be converted into temporary concessions for those rights to be granted; mining companies must inform and request permits for utilizing waters they encounter, and a minimum ecological flow will be imposed for all new concessions. Flows will also be imposed for existing concessions located in degraded and threatened areas, protected wilderness areas, water transfers, and for large projects like hydroelectric projects and reservoirs.
In several provisions, congressional leaders from the Chile Vamos party requested a constitutional limitation, arguing that the provisions infringed the right of perpetual property that the Fundamental Charter currently establishes.
Various Chilean congressmen presented their arguments before the vote. One of them was Cristina Girardi (PPD), who spoke about the ecological flow. “What this project does is prioritize water. But to prioritize the use of water we need to have water. Water has to exist, but without an ecological flow it can’t. The first responsibility of the State is to ensure that water exists, so when they say that their rights can not be infringed and cannot be removed to form ecological flows, they mean to say that we don’t care if water exists.”
Regarding the prioritization of water uses, Yasna Provoste (DC) was emphatic in saying “Today, what this new Water Code achieves is to establish priorities of use where the essential human right of access to water has a priority in this piece of law, as well as subsistence activities such as agricultural family farms. It also establishes a set of privileges for indigenous communities, for rural drinking water committees, and for farmers to exempt them from paying fees, while also clearly establishing sanctions that accumulate when water is requested for a particular project that never comes to fruition.”
The voting was joined by various organizations and leaders from across the country, who recognized this reform seeks to limit the market abuse that usurps this human right without regard to the public interest or the serious crisis facing Chile, one of the ten countries most threatened by climate change.
In the case of the Aysén region, independent Deputy Ivan Fuentes fully supported the reform, while his counterpart David Sandoval from the UDI party rejected it, with some exceptions where he abstained, primarily the provision that changes the system of water ownership. Sandoval even rejected the idea of legislating that would permit voting to begin on the bill that prioritizes the human right to this vital resource.
Sara Larraín, executive director of Chile Sustentable – an environmental organization that has followed the motion’s legislative process and promoted the Which side are you on? citizen information campaign, was also present at the Congress. “The reform is a breakthrough that ensures the protection of water for present and future generations. This is an historic day in that we are finally changing the logic of extractivism of national resources to incorporate the public interest into our public policies, but much more is needed. The human right to water, the prioritization of subsistence activities over for-profit uses, and the protection of the country’s environmental heritage should be our guide for recovering water and the defense and protection of our natural heritage.”
Larrain also indicated that “Of course the fundamental task is to change the constitution, which is pending, but it is accurate to recognize this is an important advance, one that begins to change the general reasoning installed more than 30 years ago. Now we must go to the Senate, because we must defend what was achieved today in that space.“
For Gloria Alvarado, president of the National Federation of Rural Drinking Water (FENAPRU) this reform “seeks to modernize the system and correct errors that come from an old code, back when there was plenty of water. Today the scenario has changed due to scarcity and overexploitation of the resource. The fundamental point for us is to declare the resource as a human right, one that prioritizes human consumption.“
Among the organizations present at the House of Deputies were the National Drinking Water Federation (FENAPRU), the Metropolitan Drinking Water Association (APRIM), leaders of Rural Water Associations (APRs) from La Ligua, Petorca, San Felipe and Melipilla; Women in Sacrifice Zones (Mujeres en Zonas de Sacrificio), Fundación Chile Sustentable, Fundación Ecosistemas, Fundación Newenko, The No Alto Maipo Coordinator, and the National Federation of Sanitation Workers (FENATRAOS) who will now follow the process in the Senate. 

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