The Salar del Huasco, in danger

The Salar del Huasco, in danger

By Arnaldo Pérez Guerra

The Salar del Huasco is a wetland at 4,000 meters high, in the Tarapacá region. According to geological studies, its waters are 9,000 years old.

The Salar del Huasco is a wetland at 4,000 meters high, in the Tarapacá region. According to geological studies, its waters are 9,000 years old. Collahuasi needs them for its mining exploitation, but the salt flat and the lagoon are protected by international treaties such as the Convention Relative to Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar), signed in Iran in 1971, and ratified by Chile in 1996. According to the company, the extraction of water will not affect the supply of the oases of the place. Collahuasi enforces the Water Code, whose provisions allow "exploration and exploitation" rights granted free of charge and in perpetuity.

Almost 60 percent of the water flow consumed by Iquique, Huara, Pica and Pozo Almonte is destined for the mining companies Quebrada Blanca, Cerro Colorado and Doña Inés de Collahuasi -which carry out permanent exploration and collection of underground water-, owned by of the transnational companies Noranda, BHP Billington, Anglo American, Falconbridge and Mitsui & Co. "In the medium term they could double the current volume of harvesting, which threatens the very existence of the resource. Now the danger looms over citrus farmers and mangoes from the towns of Matilla and Pica. Collahuasi is requesting an additional 903 liters per second, which it would obtain from Laguna del Huasco, "says Arturo Neira, Aquaculture engineer and director of the Council of Initiatives for Ecological Development, of Iquique.

114 kilometers inland from Iquique, is the oasis of Pica, in the vicinity of the Inca Trail. Its activity revolves around fruit growing -especially lemons, mangoes, guavas, oranges and grapefruits-, and tourism, and its inhabitants do not exceed 4,700 people. In the highland hamlets the traditional way of life continues to be the raising of auquénidae and the cultivation of quinoa, which have been greatly diminished since the large mining companies were installed. Small grazing areas subsist in Guatacondo, Copaquire, the Salar de Coposa, Alconcha and the streams of Huinquitispa and Yabricoyita, but they disappear little by little.

As of 1994, Quebrada Blanca, Cerro Colorado and Doña Inés de Collahuasi came into operation, generating great advances in the regional economy, mainly in road infrastructure, but also degrading the environment, grazing and traditional agriculture, both due to the mining activity itself. as for the exploitation of water.

Tourism has experienced a notable increase thanks to the hot springs and the attractiveness of the Huasco, Coposa and Michincha salt flats. In addition, in the vicinity of Pica are the towns of Matilla, Collacagua, Peña Blanca, Lirima and Cancosa. But the fragility of the ecosystem is evident. The Salar del Huasco, 90 kilometers east of Pica, and the lagoons and waterways that still cover it and allow a varied flora and fauna to survive in the desert, including millenary human settlements, are at serious risk of disappearing.

In Region I there are three nature sanctuaries: Dinosaur Footprints of the Quebrada de Chacarilla, Cerro Dragon and Laguna de Huasco. Law 17.288 on National Monuments states: "Nature sanctuaries are all those terrestrial or marine sites that offer special possibilities for geological, paleontological, zoological, botanical or ecological studies and investigations, or that have natural formations, whose conservation is of interest for science or for the State ". They are under the custody of the Council of National Monuments and without their authorization construction or excavation work cannot be started, nor activities such as fishing, hunting, rural exploitation or any other can be carried out.

"One of the weaknesses of the National Monuments Law is that many of its declarations remain only in the formal aspect. The Council does not have the material means to act in anticipation of harmful situations. Most of the time it only reacts after the contrary acts they happen in the spirit of the law. Not because Huasco has this category of protection, will it be free from water withdrawals that mining companies carry out in its basin. The best example is what happened in the Carlos Anwandter sanctuary, in Valdivia, where a serious attack was made against a protected area ", points out Pablo Cañarte, coordinator of the Valledinosaur Project, from Pica.

Diversity and dollars

For the General Water Directorate (DGA), the oasis of Pica is not in danger: "There is no concern that Pica will lose its water tributaries because the commune's supply is through springs that do not come from the Salar del Huasco. The source of the waters of Pica is rainwater from the high mountain range, which seeps into slopes to the west of the town, "they say. But farmers denounce "speculation" regarding water. The DGA processes exploration requests from individuals and companies that in 2005 requested water for more than 3,700 liters per second in Pica, Colchane, Poroma and Huaviña. The deputy director of the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi), Cornelio Chipana, warns that "there is probable speculation in the request for water. If the requests from companies and individuals are approved, it would imply a direct detriment to agriculture and livestock in the The number of applications is alarming and most are from people who do not even live in the region and use 'borrowed' addresses. Furthermore, they are not associated with an economic development project. " The 3,700 liters of water per second is equivalent to four times the consumption of drinking water in the province.

Farmers' fear of water extraction by mining companies has serious bases. Environmentalists, citizen organizations and the socialist deputy Fulvio Rossi denounced the mining company Cerro Colorado for the destruction of the Lagunillas basin, after the extraction of water near Cancosa. The Regional Commission for the Environment (Corema) approved the extraction of water from Pampa Lagunillas, a spring and a lagoon located in Pica, which today is dry. The Corema report acknowledged that the company "did not respect the environmental norm of protecting the wetland and the lagoon, and hid information by intervening in the place with methodologies unknown by the DGA, which in the long run further damaged the ecosystem." The National Environmental Commission (Conama) initiated a process against Cerro Colorado for non-compliance with the environmental qualification resolutions.

In 2002, the mining company committed to replenishing the flow necessary to maintain the 5,000,000 square meter "water mirror", in addition to installing instruments for observing groundwater levels and the wetland. But the DGA found that the commitment was not respected. Both the watershed and the lagoon are dry: "There is damage due to desiccation in almost the entire place. The company applied a plan to replenish the flow of the watershed using an unknown methodology, which would have caused the rotting of a large part of the wetlands "says the DGA. That is the fear of the announcements of water extraction in the Salar del Huasco. Doña Inés de Collahuasi intends to extract 953.2 liters of water per second in the vicinity of the Huasco Lagoon. The farmers of Pica and Matilla oppose this request and reports that the Huasco basin is not related to the Pica-Matilla and the Pampa del Tamarugal aquifers. According to the DGA, the mining company's request is in accordance with the law. A study by the government agency indicates that "the leaks between Huasco and Pica are minimal, so an eventual extraction in the vicinity of the lagoon would not imply a reduction in the water levels of the oasis." But there are mixed signals in the government. In 2002, Conama identified the Salar del Huasco as "the site of highest priority for the conservation of biodiversity at the regional level." The execution of the project "Conservation of Biodiversity and Sustainable Management of the Salar del Huasco" began, by the Center for Development Studies (CED), financed by the Global Environment Fund (GEF), and implemented through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The mining company itself made monetary contributions together with public and private institutions in the region for the conservation of the place.

Nature's mistake

Pica is becoming an important center of organic agricultural production, hand in hand with the associations of agricultural owners and organized civil society. Farmers are worried. Guillermo Bremer and Silvia Oxa, from the Pica Waters Defense Command, point out that the authorities should study the issue further and seek a "reasonable" solution. According to Bremer, "if water continues to be extracted, it will cause a decrease in natural pressure, which will damage the Resbaladero, Concova, Miraflores and Chintaguay lakes. The production of mangoes, oranges and lemons has already been affected with the consumption of 75 million liters per day that the Collahuasi company makes ". According to studies by the United Nations and Japanese experts, overexploitation of water could lead to depletion by 2010.

The Salar de Huasco is one of the most biodiverse wetlands in Chile and an important water reserve. It is located 180 kilometers from Iquique, and has some 9,950 hectares. It has already been threatened by intensive tourism, the appearance of 4 × 4 vehicles, the introduction of harmful livestock and the extraction of water. Geographer Luis Becerra points out that Collahuasi faces an environmental sanction process "due to the impact produced by its intervention in the Coposa wetland, which is drying up; therefore, it is to be assumed that a greater exploitation of underground water in Huasco would affect the wetland ". Luz Morales, president of the Association of Agricultural Owners of Resbaladero, Bandas and Las Animas, adds: "We want studies to be carried out because we believe that it is the water from Huasco that supplies the Pica oasis underground. Draw a thousand liters per second. It would not only kill life in the mountains, but also Pica and its surroundings. "

Currently, the water flow granted to individuals in the communes of Huara, Iquique, Pica and Pozo Almonte is 4,587 liters per second. Only 1,235 liters per second are delivered to the consumption of Iquique and inland towns through the Sanitary Company of Tarapacá (Essat). The consumption of water by the mining companies is a certain threat to the Andean communities. Arturo Neira points out that geophysical and chemical studies -using radioisotopes- demonstrated the existence of a connection between the bodies of water existing in the Andean area and the Pampa del Tamarugal: "The slopes, Andean salt flats, the Huasco Lagoon, the waters of the oasis of Pica and Matilla, would be related to each other and to the aquifer of the Pampa del Tamarugal, in a complex network of interconnections. If one of its elements is affected, there would be consequences for the entire system ". The Laguna del Huasco supplies several aquifers and makes possible the existence of an ecosystem considered Ramsar, which forces the government to protect it.

Geological and hydrological monitoring show a decrease in flows and water mirrors in the salt flats. Collahuasi maintains that there is no scientific evidence in favor of the apprehensions of the Pica and Matilla communities. According to the company "it has not been shown that any action on the Huasco Lagoon affects Pica or Matilla. The thesis of the interconnection of the aquifers presents technical errors." Huasco, Michincha and Coposa are between 3,800 and 4,500 meters above sea level and there is no more fresh water in the area. The Aymara community and the towns of Pica and Matilla see the weight of the night looming over them and the indiscriminate exploitation of water resources, comparable only to the possible transfer of glaciers to exploit Pascua Lama, in the Alto del Carmen commune, by Compañía Minera Nevada, a subsidiary of Barrick Gold Corporation. Or what Soviet engineers once did in the 1930s, calling the Aral Sea an "error of nature": They diverted the Sir-Daria and Amu-Daria rivers for three thousand kilometers to supply cotton plantations built in the middle of the desert. Central Asia, drying up the Aral Sea forever.

* Chile, March 2006


(1) Collahuasi faces an environmental sanction process for the impact caused by its intervention in the Coposa wetland, which is drying up
(2) The Laguna del Huasco enables the existence of a unique ecosystem in the world, protected by the Ramsar Convention.