Chile’s threatened rivers

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Photo: Baker River. Jimmy Langman/Patagon JournalPhoto: Baker River. Jimmy Langman/Patagon Journal
By Nathalie Joignant

Editors Note: The following is from Issue 12.
Rivers and wetlands are the veins that carry our lifeblood. Simply put, they allow our existence. In addition to water they provide countless environmental services to humans and other species, among them: food, biodiversity habitat, fibers, medicinal material, fodder for livestock, irrigation for food crops in adjacent lands, construction materials, spaces for recreation and spiritual development, and flood control. People have historically settled along their banks, ranging from small towns to big cities. But today, due to corporate greed and government irresponsibility, many rivers are drying up or under imminent threat.
On a small scale, hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source. But regretfully, this argument has also served as an excuse for gigantic “run of river” complexes, reservoirs, and large dams which destroy the ecosystem balance. These projects do not consider integrated watershed management or other use priorities, nor respect communities and their culture and lifestyles.
We also know that climate change is already provoking a significant decrease in water resources and this will only intensify in the years ahead. The Intergovernmental Panel of the United Nations (IPCC) warns that the first peak of climate change effects – when we will begin to perceive the worst effects from a warming world, including higher temperatures, drought, major hurricanes, and extreme rainfall - is forecast for around 2030. It is urgent to implement adaptation and prevention measures, and in that future big dams are simply outmoded and even dangerous.
Yet, Chile’s official national energy policy, launched in 2016 and defined as a long-term policy from now until 2050, is negligent. The policy considers the use of big dams as one of the fundamental sources for future energy development.
There is another path. Chile is privileged to possess the natural conditions for developing sustainable energy on a much larger scale. There are huge solar fields in the north, an extensive coastline for tidal power development, the windy prairies of the south are an ideal match for wind power, and this land of volcanic fire hosts one of the world’s largest untapped reserves for geothermal energy.
We must recover water rights for all Chileans. Chile is the only country in the world whose water is privatized. A first step to safeguarding the veins of Chile is passing the reforms to the water code that are currently under consideration in Chile’s Congress. Our water should be considered a national asset for public use and not an economic good for sale to the highest bidder. The country’s water resources must be re-attached to the land tenure and to community use and management. As well, Chile must protect its glaciers, because its from there were our rivers are born and they are strategic water sources for the difficult climate period ahead of us. And eventually, a new national constitution is needed that guarantees the protection, provision and access to water for all citizens and forms of life that depend on it.
Chile must also give legal protection to its most cherished rivers, Legislation is needed that is similar in style to the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act of the United States, which protects hundreds of rivers in their free-flowing condition so that waterways and their immediate environment can be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations. A similar policy in Chile could help preserve rivers currently threatened by dams such as –among others—the Ñuble, Maipo, Puelo and Manso rivers. Aside from their aesthetic value, these rivers provide a plethora of ecological and economic benefits and resources to the country and neighboring communities.
For our children and for life, Chile can protect its great rivers and build a sustainable and responsable energy economy.
Nathalie Joignant is co-spokesperon for No Alto Maipo