For thousands of years, the native Aymara people have been harvesting scarcely fallen raindrops along the Andean foothills in northern Chile by capturing the rainwater in nets for irrigation and drinking purposes. The people in this region, in and around the Atacama desert, are accustomed to fragile ecosystems and an extremely dry climate. However, today, even in the fertile central and southern regions of Chile, there are noticeable tensions over water rights and water availability.
Presently, it is not as if there are times when nothing flows out of the tap here. Nor are the urban folks of Santiago running outside their homes with their own polypropylene mesh nets ready to catch any drop of rain that falls. However, a convergence of factors – an increase in population growth, perceptible changes in climate patterns, and competition for water resources between various industries and hydro power – have caused a national “war over water” of sorts to emerge at the forefront of national environmental, economic, and political discussions.
Climate Change Impacts
Recent studies by Chilean scientists convey climate change could create huge challenges for the country’s expected water availability. The models show projected temperature increases of 1C to 1.5C and a drop in rainfall of at least 10 to 15% in the next 40 years. In addition, the 4th IPCC Assessment, from 2007, documents:
- dramatic reductions that have already occurred in the volumes of Chile’s glaciers over recent years,
- an increase in the presence of hanta virus after prolonged droughts, and
- more erratic weather activities associated with the El Niño and La Niña cyclical phenomena.
Projections from this assessment also reveal restrictions in the country’s hydro availability in the central zone in the coming years, as well as increased salinity and desertification in Chile’s northern zones
These changes would have a particularly strong impact on Chile’s internationally beloved breadbasket, its prominent agriculture and wine production from the fertile central region. While Chile is not as dependent on Andean glacial run-off for its fresh water supply as neighboring Peru and Bolivia, the natural water supplies from melting snow on the Andes are essential for Chile’s agricultural sector, forestry sector, fruits, and the vines that produce the exquisite wine.
Currently, changing climate patterns, manifested in more frequent and prolonged droughts in the central region, have had the greatest impact in diminished reserves for hydroelectric supplies. Such hydroelectricity has, historically, been Chile’s predominant energy source and, presently accounts for around 40% of Chile’s total installed electricity capacity.
The central region is also home to approximately two-thirds of the country’s 16.6 million inhabitants. Therefore, the reduction in water supplies is concern for potable water treatment and purification companies. One study, headed by Sebastián Vicuña of the Catholic University of Chile’s “Center for Global Change,” discovered that, with a 10-15% reduction in rain levels, the water of the Maipo River – by far the greatest source of drinking water and irrigation for Santiago and the region – would be diminished by 70% by 2065, from 170 cubic meters a second to not more than 60.
Opportunities for Clean Tech Water Technology Transfer
Although Chile has had a unique (and, sometimes successful) free market in the buying and trading of water rights since the framework was first implemented in 1981, even ardent supporters of this unfettered water market see its current and future limitations of oncoming climate challenges and growing industrial needs. The Director General of Water with Chile’s Ministry of Public Works (MOP), Rodrigo Weisner, has stated that even though there is a high level of justice in resolving water disputes in Chile, there are also inadequacies with the system of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), for example. Weisner also points out that current legal mechanisms do not allow for a middle ground between winners in losers in such disputes. Many would argue that, simply, those interests with the deepest pockets are usually the winners of such disputed water supplies.
Even still, beyond economics, what would most likely help resolve water dilemmas in Chile, and in a growing number of water-pressed countries around the globe, are infrastructure improvements from new “clean” water technologies.
In early July 2009, Chile’s state MOP declared that it is presently analyzing ways to promote seawater desalination investment projects in the country’s five northern regions. Large enterprises that have reportedly shown serious interest in desalination activities in Chile have reportedly been BHP Billiton, Spain’s Agbar and even General Electric. With 4,000 km of coastline, it would seem there is no shortage of business opportunities in Chile for emerging desalination technologies, either developed locally or abroad. In addition, The MOP has also investigated the use of “tertiary wastewater treatment” for increasing efficiency in local water utilities. And, in June, the Chilean government established a separate inter-ministry committee for water policies and investments alone.
As Tina Ngo wrote in a previous blog entry on CleanTechies, the water crisis may not receive as much press coverage as the current energy crisis, but, quite soon, there will most likely be just as many “cleantech” opportunities for water treatment and conservation technologies as in producing and harnessing new forms of energy. For an example of innovative approaches to resolving water issues look at the prize competitions of California-based ImagineH2O.
Chile is an example of emerging water debates soon to play out around the globe. So, if we want to continue indulging in the fruits of Chilean wines, as well as potentially our own drinking water, we look forward to increased capital investment and interest in novel, cost-effective water treatment technologies.