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Part II: women lead community-run efforts to tackle Chile’s water crisis

(Credit: Rocio Egio for Geneva Solutions)

The Earth’s freshwater is running more and more scarce. Over two billion people don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water. With climate change and human intensive activities pressing on the accelerator, countries are forced to take a hard look and rethink how to save those depleting resources while providing water for those who don’t have access.

Chile is experiencing a full blown water crisis. A 10-year drought and decades of unchecked industrial farming and mining have dangerously run it dry, leaving at least 1.4 million people without access to water. In the rural central region, women are spearheading efforts to provide community-run services in the worst hit regions.

Despite its radical free-market approach, which we discussed in a previous article, Chile paradoxically also recognises community-run water providers. Set up in 1964, they were part of the country's plan to bring water and sanitation to rural areas and reduce child mortality and morbidity rates.

Today there are over 1,900 of these cooperatives and committee-like structures providing drinking water for nearly two million rural inhabitants – that’s 99 per cent of households in rural concentrated areas.

“It’s one of Chile’s most successful public policies,” says Evelyn Vicioso, executive director of the Chilean water rights group Newenko.

Women at the top

Deeply rooted in social work, these community organisations have a different relationship with water and nature. They are non-profit, run mostly by volunteers, with financial support from the state, making tariffs more affordable for users.

And women, Vicioso tells Geneva Solutions, are at the heart of such efforts. Around 43 per cent of the cooperatives are led by women, according to a recent analysis by Newenko.

Gloria Alvarado is one of those rural women leaders. She has managed a cooperative in the commune of Pichidegua, in the central region of O'Higgins, for over 30 years and is the president of the Federation of rural water organisations  (FENAPRU).

For her, water is a natural element belonging to everyone and it should not have an economic value. “I started working here as a young girl when I was about 21 years old. My life has been centred on this community service. We also have a solidarity committee and we work on education projects with the schools. We provide a service but also have the social aspect,” she explains to Geneva Solutions.

She's also a member of the convention that will be rewriting the constitution and will be advocating for the end of water entitlements. “We are not against productivity. We know that it generates employment and economy for the country but there has to be a balance,” she says. “Water is a renewable resource but up to a certain point. If you over exploit it, it doesn't have the capacity to recover.”

Women will also have a major role to play in the constitutional process. The 155-member convention is the first in the world to respect gender parity.

The rural organisation Mujeres Modatima, which secured four seats, also intends to shed light on the issues that specifically affect women and girls, starting with sexual and reproductive rights. “My daughter suffered 13 urinary tract infections in a year from not being able to use the toilet at school where they only had running water two hours a day,” Lorena Donaire, founder and spokesperson.

However, fighting for water rights in Chile comes at a price. Donaire and her colleagues from Mujeres Modatima have been targeted for their work. Amnesty International held campaigns for them to raise awareness about the threats and intimidations they were receiving. “I've had seven break-ins in my house,” Donaire says, unable to pinpoint who is behind them. “The other day, they tried to kidnap my 16 year old daughter, but luckily we were able to open the door in time.”

The fear of reprisals has also spread to others. “We went to take complaints near Petorca about water being stolen by two businessmen who had run the whole community dry. We went on a Friday and on Saturday morning, bikers burned down the chapel. People are afraid of calling us, they say ‘no, it's better if you don't come, let's stop investigating’,” she regrets.

What model to choose?

Chile’s rural water cooperatives are grounded in democratic governance and decentralised, encouraging more engagement with the communities they serve.

“I​​n most rural settings, it's completely logical to have community-run water operations,” Tobias Schmitz, development adviser for the Water Diplomat at the Geneva Water Hub, a centre of the University of Geneva specialised in hydropolitics and hydrodiplomacy.

Such systems can also work in urban areas. “I saw one example in Semarang, Indonesia, where their water management system was so good that people wanted to be disconnected from the municipality’s water system and connected to the community one,” he says.

The prices were lower because operation costs were also lower. “Democracy and a certain amount of participation helps a lot to satisfy consumer needs, and this is of course a big problem with privatisation because you're handing control over to somebody who is not accountable to the community,” he adds.

Since the recognition of the human right to water at UN level in 2010, governments have been focusing efforts to extend water services to those who don’t have access, in many cases entrusting the task to private actors.

“You can find different solutions for different parts of the world, in some cases you might collect rain water and in other places you might pump water, in other cases you might need to desalinate water from the ocean,” Catarina de Albuquerque, former UN special rapporteur on the right to water and chief executive officer of the US-based organisation Sanitation and Water for All, tells Geneva Solutions.

“I think that is the beauty about the human right to water and sanitation: the flexibility that the normative code gives us to realise the rights in different manners according to the different circumstances and to the availability of resources, not only financial resources, but also the availability of the water resource,” she adds.

Many challenges

But these organisations also face many difficulties, Schmitz notes. Managing water systems properly requires training and incentives to encourage people to stay once they get that training so that they don’t leave for a better paying job somewhere else.

In Chile, the water shortage is fuelling competition between water organisations and corporations. Decreasing water levels on the surface have forced everyone to look underground for water. But the organisations are no match for the much deeper pits that big companies are able to drill which soak up the water from under the community-run wells.

The organisations also struggle to keep up with legal requirements. Only 20 per cent have registered water rights, meaning that they risk legal repercussions for withdrawing water. A new law passed in 2020 that protects these structures also imposed additional requirements, such as having to use electronic billing while many of them are in areas with no wifi connection.

“The human rights obligations of states does not necessarily mean that the state should be the provider,” says Leo Heller, former UN expert on water.

“The provider can perfectly be a community-run organisation, but what is important is that the state should be behind this structure, providing support, providing financial aid, providing what they need, because otherwise it would be the government washing their hands in terms of providing the services in those areas,”

The water we share