The insatiable thirst of the miners

The insatiable thirst of the miners

By Leyla Ramírez / Arnaldo Pérez

Tarapacá at war for water

The Salar de Huasco is one of the few sources of fresh water in the highlands of Region I, and the mining company Doña Inés Collahuasi intends to take advantage of it for its tasks. This is one of the cases that the new environmental authority will have to settle, knowing that at the current rate of exploitation a water crisis is predicted in the area in less than 10 years.

From time to time the oasis of Pica dresses in mourning. Black flags -already faded by the force of the sun- flutter in the hamlets of the area to make clear the declaration of war of the inhabitants of the oasis: to prevent the Doña Inés de Collahuasi company from exploiting the water reserves of the Salar lagoon of Huasco.

Their reasons are clear. First, they accuse the company of poor environmental management in other salt flats, such as Michinca and Coposa. The first one simply dried up, while the second saw its flow reduced from 90 to 20 liters per second in five years, when it had to be halved in 25 years of operation. This means only one thing for farmers: Huasco is in danger and so are they.

Second, they say that there are no reliable technical studies that certify that the Huasco lagoon does not have underground connections with the springs that nourish the oasis and allow fruit growing in the area. This is without taking into account that said high Andean wetland is protected by international and national conventions, due to its unique ecosystem (see box).

For all the above, Luz Morales (80), president of the Association of Agricultural Owners of Resbaladero, Bandas and Las Animas, in Pica, is not willing to give in. The disputes with the mining companies over water have already dragged on for more than a decade, more than enough time to denounce the unsustainable extraction of water in the region and the beginning of a water crisis that, they believe, will end up affecting the population. agriculture and tourism sector.

The situation is complex and not only puts Huasco at risk, but also all the High Andean salt flats of the Tarapacá Region. This is what the director of the Norte Grande Studies and Development Corporation, Claudio López, believes, who indicates that the task of the new environmental authority will be to resolve how it deals with mining that is committed to growing in a country with weak water legislation and in one of the driest areas on the planet.

Gifted water

As of 1994, Quebrada Blanca, Cerro Colorado and Doña Inés de Collahuasi, owned, respectively, by the transnational companies Noranda, BHP Billiton and Falconbridge, Anglo American and Mitsui & Co began operations in this area.

His arrival brought great advances in the regional economy, mainly in road infrastructure, but also the degradation of the environment, grazing and traditional agriculture, both due to the mining activity itself and the exploitation of water, which in Chile is free.

The current Water Code allows the first interested party in a certain aquifer to have the preferential right to stay with it when they register it with the General Water Directorate (DGA). The applicant must pay for the technical studies, prospecting and the visit of DGA personnel to verify the capacity of the aquifer. Nothing else. If you meet the requirements of the law, the rights you receive are final. The new owner of the resource can sell, lease or benefit financially.

Under this system, the water flow delivered to individuals in the communes of Huara, Iquique, Pica and Pozo Almonte is approximately 4,587 liters per second. Of these, almost 60% goes to mining companies. "In the medium term they could double the current volume of exploitation, which threatens the very existence of the resource," says Arturo Neira, Aquaculture engineer and director of the Council of Initiatives for Ecological Development, of Iquique.

The reform to the Water Code, last June, imposed new elements, but none referred to ending the free resource. The closest thing that was added was that, if the water is not used, the owner must pay an annual patent.

The permissive law encourages speculation. This is reported by the residents of Pica, Colchane, Poroma and Huaviña, where there are requests for exploration by individuals and companies to exploit water for more than 3,700 liters per second, which is equivalent to four times the current consumption of drinking water in the province.

The deputy director of the National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi), Cornelio Chipana, warns that “there is probable speculation regarding the request for water. If the applications of companies and individuals are approved, it would imply a direct detriment to agriculture and livestock in the towns. The number of requests 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 ”.

Underground connections

The General Water Directorate (DGA) has not yet given the final answer to Collahuasi's request to consume 903 liters per second in Huasco, but Jaime Muñoz, head of the water resources administration department of that organization, reported that after the technical analyzes of Its entity concluded that the exploitation of water in the area could have some degree of impact on the salt flat and, therefore, it was determined that it was a prerequisite to submit the extraction to an environmental impact assessment. "Now we are in the preliminary analysis, which is to know what happens to this ecosystem with different levels of extraction."

The people of Pica are opposed to any concession, as they fear that Huasco's water system is connected to its springs, but the DGA states that the oasis is not in danger: “There is no concern that Pica will lose its water tributaries due to that the supply of the commune is through springs that do not come from the Salar del Huasco. The origin of the waters of Pica are rainwater from the high mountain range, which seeps into slopes to the west of the town, ”he said in a statement.

However, even in the mining company they are not sure of the nonexistence of such a connection. Otherwise, nothing explains why they offered 400 million pesos to farmers in case their watersheds dried up.

Aníbal Manzur, Argentine and a doctor of geology, points out that while no one can claim that such a connection exists, neither can anyone claim otherwise. “The data that exists are insufficient. The issue is how groundwater is exploited in high Andean salt flats and that should be under predictable conditions, a continuous evaluation of the environmental system and flexible extraction designs ”.

Arturo Neira thinks differently. He says that geophysical and chemical studies -using radioisotopes- demonstrated the connection between the bodies of water in the Andean area and the Pampa del Tamarugal. "If one of its elements is affected, there would be consequences for the entire system."

To the limit of sustainability

Álvaro Alaniz, an anthropologist at Fundación Avina, a specialist in sustainable growth issues, assures that the central point of this conflict is Chile's development model, where water is seen as a business and not as a common good. “I don't think that in Chile people run out of water to drink to benefit companies. The problem is due to the development expectations that we are implementing that need more water than the ecosystems are providing. This scarcity prevents projecting the current economic model in more than 10 years and that is where the communities realize that they are going to have an imminent crisis ”.

In the DGA they recognize that in the main aquifers in the area, the demands for them exceed the availability of groundwater. They have their own "impossible mission": the miraculous formula to intensively exploit groundwater without impairing the rights of third parties or the environment.

The community does not trust. They know that economic power is always more compelling. But they are organized and will make their voices heard. This is stated by the director of the Norte Grande Studies and Development Corporation who says that the Coposa case is the best example of what should not be done again. "According to the latest studies generated by government agencies, the Coposa wetland will be extinguished in 2008. This means that Collahuasi will have contributed to Chile having more desert than before." They are not willing for that to happen with Huasco and they will fight. The black flags will continue to fly in Pica.

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