A rural town’s river vanished. Is Chile’s constitution to blame?
A rural town in Chile is suddenly on the brink of running out of water.
The town of San Luis, near the provincial capital of Talca, gets most its drinking water from a local reservoir. But this spring, its water has turned brown as a result of a bacteria which breaks down the rock underneath, says Mayor Mario González.
“The reservoir is a little dry, but the source of water is not dry,” he says. “It is the same thing in all the local reservoirs of this area which has the same problem.”
It’s the latest example of a problem that has struck dozens of rural communities in Chile, where the government’s constitution has been invoked, the result being the draining of water from the region’s aquifers and the shutting down of the country’s water supply.
The crisis is one of a country that, despite having a population five times that of Europe, has the lowest water quality of any major Western country in the world. And the situation threatens to become an international scandal.
“It’s not just the water that is a problem, the ecosystem is also in danger,” says Carlos Larrea, professor at the University of Chile.
Larrea says the government is to blame for the crisis, after it failed to implement the principles of the constitution.
“It’s not normal that in our constitution there is the principle of ‘self-determination’,” he says. “It could be to blame that since the early  presidential elections the government decided that the solution to the crisis is the same solution in which it has found itself since 1996.”
A Chilean family watches fish dying after its water supply was cut off.Credit: AP
From the local reservoir to the international market, that solution means the transfer of water to markets that produce more water, instead of producing fewer and less polluting products.
The transfer of water from one population to another has been practiced in Chile for centuries, but the constitution was the final nail in the coffin for the practice, says David Véliz, chief prosecutor during the Pinochet dictatorship.
“The reality is that even during the dictatorship, the people had the right to water themselves, to conserve their water, to