I want to go back to girlish lands;
take me to a land soft of waters.
For 10 years, Chile has been facing what is already considered a mega drought or the worst drought in its history, covering six regions North and South of the capital, including Santiago. This vast area concentrates about 80% of the population, where thousands of animals have died of thirst and others have had to be moved south to places with fresh water and pastures. An important part of the lack of water is a consequence of natural cycles, but at least 30% is the result of human action, according to scientists.
According to the 2017 census, 10.1% of the Chilean population is rural, which is equivalent to approximately 1.7 million people. Half of these people live without drinking water and 380,000 do not have access to water, that is, they are supplied by cistern trucks. These data are mainly taken from the study published in December 2019, entitled Poor of Water. Radiography of Rural Water in Chile: Visualization of a Hidden Problem, carried out by the Amulén Foundation, in conjunction with the Catholic University of Chile over seven months and under participation of 17 experts.
The Coronavirus pandemic, like the rest of the world, strikes the rich and the poor, although with different means and measures to combat the disease. Chile has a good public health service but insufficient already in normal times, serving 80% of the population. The country also has a very efficient private one, where the 14.4% that can pay are affiliated. For their part, the armed forces and other sectors, which represent 2.8% of the population, have their own system, while 2.8% of people with lower incomes have no coverage at all. The current health crisis will test the capacity and strengths to serve all of them.
As of the closing date of this article, April 20, the figures left by COVID-19 are 10.088 infected, 133 deceased and 4.338 recovered. The government, until today, has been well evaluated in general terms for its management in facing the disease. They quickly decreed a state of emergency, curfew, sanitary cords and other measures. However, among the universal recommendations indicated by the WHO to avoid contagions, is frequent hand washing, at least 20 seconds and with soap. How can those 380,000 people who do not have access to water do it? How can they protect themselves? The correlation between lack of water and extreme poverty is almost perfect, Amulén's study points out. Under these circumstances, contradictions emerge in the Chilean economic model that has privileged the growth of the private over the public - which could be dramatically reflected if the pandemic continues its upward curve, as has happened in other countries.
The city of Santiago, with more than 7 million inhabitants, may be severely affected by the lack of water in the short term, that is, starting next year. It will depend on whether in the rainy season, which begins in April and ends in September, it will be able to fill its reservoirs, rivers and lakes that await the precious liquid. There are areas where private companies dedicated to agriculture and that hold water rights over rivers and underground waterways, have literally left lagoons and underground sources of supply dry. The Constitution that governs in Chile was drafted and approved under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, in 1980, without a constituent assembly or democratic debate and without participation of women, just a small group of his trusted designated men.
They established the legal framework for the privatization process of the economy that included the educational, health and pensions systems, as well as public companies and water. In this regard, the Constitution indicates in Chapter III: Constitutional Rights and Duties, in its article 24:
The rights of individuals over waters, recognized or constituted in accordance with the law, will grant their owners ownership over them.
This norm, which is very clear in its wording, is responsible for ensuring that the rights to water use which the State had granted free of charge were privatized, and that the public companies that managed water and sanitation services were sold to private companies. It is not the responsibility of the foreign companies that today control water in Chile: it was the national authority that handed them over. It is effective that in many countries the water market exists, but this is temporary, subject to laws and not in perpetuity, as in the Chilean case. Furthermore, none of these countries has private water ownership enshrined in their Constitution. Chile is the only country in the world. It is true that a large part of the water privatization process was carried out in a democracy, where the voice of the people was not heard. The few politicians who opposed it, were not either, and the very few times that it has been tried to change this norm, the conservative sectors have consistently opposed, not giving the votes to achieve the 2/3 that a constitutional reform of this nature requires.
Other countries have tried to privatize water. Known is the case of Italy, in 2011. The then Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called a plebiscite for that purpose, where he also consulted on the introduction of nuclear energy. Contrary to expectations, there was a high popular participation, reaching almost 60% of people who went out to vote. The result was categorical: 95% of the Italians rejected both proposals, so the water remains public and no nuclear power plants will be built.
Once the pandemic is over, the day after, many things are expected to change and with some innocence or optimism, it is pointed out that capitalism will be reformed, humanized, that we will take care of the planet, we will attend to climate change. Let's hope it will be like that. In Chile, the plebiscite to vote on whether Chileans want a new Constitution, originally to be held on April 26, was postponed to October 25 as a result of the pandemic. They will also vote on the formula to elect the constituents, either 100% elected or 50% of the current congressmen. If the drafting of a new Magna Carta is approved, the ownership of water will be discussed, among other issues. The profits or monetary gains cannot condition the access and use to a public good of first necessity. That Chile is the only country in the world where water is private is only due to the permeability of democratic governments that ended up assuming as their own the principles of extreme neoliberalism that legitimized over time and which today is responsible for the social outbreak that shakes the Chilean society. All polls today indicate that a new Constitution will be approved. If only one reason was enough to go out and vote on October 25, that must be to end the private ownership of water once for all.