Water scarcity and Chile-Bolivia relations

The water resources of the Silala River in the Atacama Desert, which flows down into Chile from springs in the Bolivian altiplano, have sparked new hostility between the two countries.

The UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has recently been assessing two legal cases concerning geopolitical disputes between Chile and Bolivia. The first of these relates to Bolivia’s historic loss of maritime territory and access to the Pacific Ocean. This is well documented as an ongoing thorn in Chile-Bolivia relations.

However, in March 2016, a rather less familiar disagreement came to the fore. The water resources of the Silala River in the Atacama Desert, which flows down into Chile from springs in the Bolivian altiplano, have sparked new hostility between the two countries. The river lies in the driest region in the world, where water is critical to livelihoods and mining.

Bolivia president, Evo Morales, claims that Chile has been unlawfully diverting water from the Silala along artificial watercourses to supply copper mining operations. He argues Bolivia has sovereign rights over the natural resources. Conversely, Chile maintains that the Silala constitutes an international river as defined by UN law, and that the channels constructed in the early 1900s are merely consistent with the natural flow of the Silala. Chile raised the profile of the dispute by submitting the case to the UN in July. International experts are currently analysing evidence, having recently met in Bolivia to begin scientific research on the river and its source.

Global trends indicate that water is an increasingly contentious resource, as a result of climate change and increased demands from population growth and industry. Indeed, back in 1999, the former UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General declared: ‘as water becomes increasingly rare, it becomes coveted, and capable of unleashing conflicts’. To a greater extent than land and even oil, he warned, ‘it is over water that the most bitter conflicts of the near future may be fought’.

Access to water – and heightened competition over resources – was believed to be at the root of the Darfur conflict in Sudan. Elsewhere, disagreement over water distribution and the construction of hydroelectric dams is driving discordant relations among Central Asian states. Similarly, water scarcity exacerbates the more violent clashes in the Middle East. While water scarcity alone is rarely found to be the sole cause of conflict, it plays an increasingly important role when overlapping with other political, economic, social, cultural and historical factors.

Both Chile and Bolivia have witnessed smaller scale water-related unrest within their borders between different communities, or involving extractive industries and foreign companies. These types of local conflict are more common than international confrontations; diplomatic tools and institutions such as the ICJ aim to dampen antagonisms between states.

However, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) labels the transboundary Silala watershed as the single ‘high risk’ basin in South America, describing it as ‘one of the most hydropolitically vulnerable basins in the world’. To add to strains, as of Monday 21st November, Bolivia finds itself in a national state of emergency due to drought and severe shortages in water supplies. Parts of La Paz are receiving water only every third day.

Given past and present sensitivities between Chile and Bolivia, and the presence of military installations close to the river, observers will be carefully following the Silala dispute. From a local and global perspective, the outcome of this legal case may be crucial to future Chile-Bolivia relations.

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