Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chilean water rights scheme leaves rural places drying up

Don't miss Alexei Barrionuevo's story in today's New York Times. He writes about the shriveling up and near death of Quillagua, Chile', near the country's northern border. Quillagua has for decades been considered the driest place on earth, but it's gotten even drier in recent years. Without water, farming is no longer a viable livelihood. As a consequence, towns like Quillagua are being lost. Quillagua's population has dropped from about 800 in the 1940s to just 120 today. The culprit is partly law, partly mining and other industrial interests. Here's an excerpt from the story:

Nowhere is the system for buying and selling water more permissive than here in Chile, experts say, where water rights are private property, not a public resource, and can be traded like commodities with little government oversight or safeguards for the environment.

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Some economists have hailed Chile’s water rights trading system, which was established in 1981 during the military dictatorship, as a model of free-market efficiency that allocates water to its highest economic use.

But other academics and environmentalists argue that Chile’s system is unsustainable because it promotes speculation, endangers the environment and allows smaller interests to be muscled out by powerful forces, like Chile’s mining industry.

Urban and agricultural interests are similarly pitted against each other in the American West, but laws in this country provide more protection for the public interest, which typically means more water for agriculture and other rural uses. Still, as burgeoning populations in the West increase urban demands for water, holding enough back for agricultural uses and other needs of rural communities is only going to become more dificult.

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