Running along the thin stretch of land between the Andes and South America’s Pacific coast, Chile has grown to be one of the region’s most prosperous countries. Challenges remain ahead, however, as a drying climate and expanding urban build-up threatens the nation’s ability to supply clean water for its growing population. Here are 10 facts about sanitation in Chile.
10 Facts About Sanitation in Chile
- Chile just experienced its driest decade in history. Ecologists have labeled the past 10 years as a mega-drought, which has seen rainfall deficits as high as 70 percent in the Metropolitan region, leading the Chilean government to implement agricultural emergency zones in over one-third of the nation’s provinces. Furthermore, as temperatures rise and annual rates of precipitation continue to drop, many expect Chile to experience the greatest water stress of any in the western hemisphere over the next 40 years, placing much of the country’s population at risk of water insecurity.
- Everyone has access to basic sanitation. In 2016, Chile became the first Latin American country to achieve 100 percent basic sanitation coverage for its population, a major feat. Compounding this good news is that, as of 2017, roughly 77 percent of the Chilean population now has access to safely managed sanitation, a coverage rate that even surpasses that of Norway (76.32 percent). This comes only 40 years after the establishment of SENDOS, Chile’s first national sanitation and water company. Its involvement in the Chilean utility landscape got the ball rolling on increased public investments in sanitation coverage from 1977 to 1988.
- Chile’s water code grants free water rights to private corporations. Chile’s Water Code, which Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship enacted in 1981, empowers governmental authorities to grant permanent water titles to private owners, free of charge. As a consequence, private corporations own and operate 27 of Chile’s 28 water utilities, limiting the ability of the central government to regulate the management and distribution of the nation’s water supply.
- Santiago is growing, but so are its water needs. The Santiago Metropolitan Region, located in drought-prone central Chile, is currently home to 7 million people, a number that experts only expect to grow in the coming decades, placing further strain on the region’s diminishing water resources. In an effort to combat water scarcity in Chile’s capital, organizations such as the National Resources Defense Council have identified several priorities in managing the growing water deficit, including tackling inefficient agricultural practices and developing green infrastructure to meet Santiago’s needs.
- Glaciers provide Chile with much of its water, but they are in danger of disappearing. Chile currently possesses one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, due in large part to runoff from glaciers located high up in the southern Andes mountain range. That supply is dwindling, however, as rates of precipitation decline and extensive mining of the copper deposits beneath many glacial areas continues. Researchers estimate that if Chile does not take steps to preserve the nation’s glaciers, by the end of the century, half of the total ice volume will have melted, depriving Chile of its major source of freshwater.
- Legal hurdles are compromising water access in central Chile. Experts expect water flows from the Maípo River Basin, which provides central Chile with 80 percent of its potable water and 90 percent of the water used for agriculture, to shrink by 40 percent over the next 50 years, spurred on by glacial retreat and an over-allocation of the river basin’s aquifers. Part of the issue lies in the Chilean Water Code’s division of the river basin into three distinct administrative sections, none of which are legally required to cooperate when it comes to handling water rights, leading many to seek legal reform as a potential remedy.
- In the north, water access is often a source of conflict. The Atacama Desert, a desert so dry that researchers use it to model conditions on other planets, covers Chile’s four northernmost provinces and hosts around 1.5 million people. As most of the groundwater available is fossil water, non-renewable water left over from the Atacama’s prehistoric past, there is concern that over-extraction of the region’s water supply will lead to its permanent depletion. This could lead to conflicts between the region’s mining companies and its indigenous inhabitants, who already must contend with the lowest household water usage rates in the country.
- Chilean companies are investing in “smart water” technology. As of 2017, 98.64 percent of the Chilean population possesses access to clean, household water, one of the highest coverage rates in Latin America. Despite these successes, over 30 percent of Chile’s potable water is still what experts consider “non-revenue water” or water that never manages to reach the consumer, thanks to a combination of theft, technical errors and leaks from broken and corroded pipes. To help combat this issue, many of Chile’s private water utilities have begun investing in “smart water” technology, which will allow companies to more efficiently monitor for potential leaks and breakdowns in the piping systems.
- Natural disasters are impeding access to water. The past two decades in Chile have seen a marked rise in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, such as in the case of 2017, when surging floods in the capital Santiago left millions of Chileans suddenly without access to clean drinking water. Many attribute Chile’s heightened susceptibility to floods in particular to the rapid expansion of urban development and the loss of green spaces within the country, which has resulted in increased surface water run-off in populated areas, leaving water nowhere to go during storms.
- Sanitation-related illnesses have declined sharply. Thanks to the country’s efforts in increasing sanitation coverage, only .2 percent of the mortality rate is now attributable to unsafe water and sanitation in Chile, the same percentage as that of the U.S. This also has helped to lower the overall child mortality rate to 7.2 per 1,000 live births, well under the Latin American average.
Although the country faces many unique hurdles to overcome in the days ahead, these 10 facts about sanitation in Chile demonstrate a nation that is consistently striving to meet the needs of its people, blazing a trail for other Latin American nations to follow in the process.
– James Roark