Hydro-Highway Robbery

Reguemos Chile Would Benefit Agribusinesses at the Expense of the Environment, Small Farmers, and Indigenous Peoples

The Maipo River Basin, one of many facing extreme drought in Chile

Cristián Andrés Plos Lins

“The water highway does not benefit us at all; quite the opposite. Despite all of the examples that exist in our history of genocide, cultural damage, relocation of populations, even so, Alto Biobío is still a territory that exists in the eyes of businessmen only as a sacrifice zone, meant to meet the needs not of the people, but of themselves; not for those who actually need water, but for mining, for their agricultural irrigation.”

—Fernanda Castro Purrán, spokesperson for the Red por los Ríos Libres and member of the Mapuche Callaqui community

Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Chilean water supply. Rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns have led to an ongoing mega-drought. The country is currently experiencing a serious water shortage that is impacting health, sanitation, food production, drinking water, and energy production. In Chile, 42 percent of the rural population does not have a formal water supply, and more than a million people do not have reliable water sources. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this means that millions in Chile do not have access to potable water.

This water crisis requires urgent solutions to ensure that there is sufficient and safe water for communities and ecosystems as well as for productive uses. Despite the need for immediate solutions and as countries begin to rebuild after the pandemic, it is important to avoid projects that may cause more problems than they solve.

The Reguemos Chile project, a “carretera hídrica” or hydro-highway, is an example of such a damaging initiative. The proposed hydro-highway would use a series of canals and aqueducts to transfer water from the south of the country (the Biobío region) to the arid central north (the Atacama region). This transfer is designed to bolster large-scale agricultural initiatives by delivering water to the country’s most water-scarce regions. The project has advanced to the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) for consideration without the consent or consultation of local Indigenous communities, and it does not consider the environmental and social impacts to the regions from which water will be diverted and through which it will be transported. As it stands today, the hydro-highway would cause serious damage to the climate, biodiversity, ecosystems, and people living in the affected basins.

Overview of proposed hydro-highway project

Reguemos Chile

Reguemos Chile Is Lengthy and Costly

Reguemos Chile is being promoted as a public–private initiative, and the company estimates that 25 percent of the project will be funded with taxpayer money. The first channel section alone, running more than 1,015 kilometers (about 631 miles), would cost US $6 billion, US $2 billion of which would be a state subsidy. The first three sections of the proposed water highway could together require an infrastructure investment of US $15 billion to $18 billion, at least US $3.75 billion of which would come from Chilean taxpayers. In addition to being expensive, it will take at least eight years, with most estimates putting completion closer to 10–15 years. Even by the best estimates, the Reguemos Chile project will be lengthy and costly to taxpayers, whose money could be going to support more efficient and equitable water solutions.

Reguemos Chile Would Negatively Impact the Climate

A project such as Reguemos Chile would produce massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that could adversely impact Chile’s ability to meet its climate goals of decarbonizing its electric sector and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Using the Colorado River Aqueduct in the United States as a model, we were able to estimate the CO2 emissions of just the cement used for the Reguemos Chile project. According to our projections, the cement alone in a basin transfer project such as Reguemos, which is 10 times longer than the Colorado River Aqueduct, could emit around 9,790 kilotons of CO2, the equivalent of emissions from more than two billion passenger vehicles driven for one year.

View of Valle de la Luna, a protected area located in the Atacama region. The Reguemos project proposes to extend into the desert region.

Jessica Carey-Webb

Reguemos Chile Would Negatively Affect Communities

Members of the scientific community, civil society organizations, city mayors, and the Mapuche and Pehuenche Indigenous communities have publicly criticized the Reguemos project for ignoring the real harm the project would cause. For example, Reguemos refers to the water it would capture from the rivers as an “exceedance,” a surplus of water not needed by local farms and cities. This is incorrect. Juan Armesto, a scientist at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of Chile, warns that the water that rivers take to the sea is a fundamental part of the ecosystem: “It is not a ‘surplus’ but rather contains biodiversity and nutrients derived from terrestrial ecosystems, which provide energy to the trophic chains of aquatic systems in rivers, lakes, and coasts.”  In fact, the studies Reguemos Chile provides on its own website reveal that construction of the first section, a model of the next four sections to come, was found to pose a high-impact risk to the flora and fauna, natural hydrology, and local populations of the area.

There Are Better Alternatives

As Chile and the world look to rebuild after the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative to avoid projects like Reguemos Chile’s hydro-highway. Instead of the Reguemos Chile project, we recommend the development of local and regional water management solutions that focus on the reduction of water waste, the development and management of local supplies, and the restoration of highly overused aquifers. Such solutions would include expanding technical irrigation to enhance water efficiency; implementing water recycling systems; protecting, conserving, and restoring the basins’ hydrological balance; and promoting practices to increase water retention capacities and soil health. Water management programs like these are needed to bring long-term, equitable relief to the many people, ecosystems, and industries suffering without reliable access to water in Chile. In the current context of climate change and water stress, it is worth investing in alternative projects that may avoid the harmful anticipated impacts of this hydro-highway.

About the Authors

Jessica Carey-Webb

ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow, Latin America Campaign Advocate

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