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News > Latin America

Chilean Authorities Limit Water Permits Amid Severe Drought

  • Brine pools at a lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert, Chile, August 16, 2018.

    Brine pools at a lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert, Chile, August 16, 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 23 August 2018

Authorities in Chile have restricted water permits to businesses in the Atacama region because the resource is being 'overexploited' in the desert. 

Chilean water authorities will limit water use rights in the southern region of the Atacama desert because the current number of permits are above sustainable levels, reports the General Directorate of Water (DGA using its Spanish acronym).

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The DGA will create a water reservoir for human consumption to ensure that water remains available in the Salar de Atacama where lithium giants, SQM and Albemarle operate, says Reuters.

"We are evaluating both in this case and in other cases where overexploitation exists to first try to work with users to see if there is a voluntary agreement and, if not, to apply... reduction of extraction," GA Director Oscar Cristi told Reuters on Thursday.

"We're taking legal matters (limiting permits) and constructing the reservoir because it's possible that these water sources won't be available (in the future)."

Authorities had already given SQM and Albemarle, the world's two largest lithium producers, permits to expand prior to the DGA decision.

In May, the DGA released a study showing that Chile's rivers, aquifers, glaciers and lakes are shrinking at record rates and contributing to the country's long-term drought.

Over the past 33 years, the Huasco River located in the Atacama has decreased in flow by 84 percent. The Elqui River, also in northern Chile, fell by 73 percent during that timeframe, according to the DGA report.

Water engineers found that precipitation, mainly in the central region of the country, has fallen significantly over the past 50 years. Valparaiso has suffered some of the largest bouts of drought. Its precipitation has fallen by 66 percent since 1965, and its soils have eroded by 70 percent. 

Carlos Estevez, then director of the DGA, said at the time: "The scarcity of the resource relates to climate change affecting a large area of the country… Access to water must be a human right."

Cristian Frene, from Engineers in the Native Forest, points out that the reduction water access is due not only to temperatures and drought, particularly since 2010, but also by industries using more water over the past few decades.

The scientist said that tree plantations that cultivate non-native species for lumber consume a greater amount of water. "Tree plantations have greatly expanded. One eucalyptus consumes 200 liters of water in one day, compared to 140 for native trees," Frene told local media.

Pablo Badenier, the minister of environment under ex-president Michelle Bachelet, said the challenge for the government is to implement "monitoring standards and plans for more (water) basins." At the moment only the Maipo, BioBio, Valdivia and Serrano rivers and the Villarrica and Llanquihue lakes are monitored for use.


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