The government of Chile has organized a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution to address natural resources allocation, ownership of water and social inequality. At the heart of the project is to create 21st Century governance that will adapt with climate change.
The 155-strong assembly will assess the role of the mining in the future of the country and, crucially, the role of water in that future. It is expected that any new constitution will address climate change, the environment, and economic inequality. The mandate for a new constitution is supported by president Gabriel Boric, a student activist who campaigned for office on a platform to address the social inequality, increase mining taxes, and nationalize lithium production.
The current constitution, drafted in 1980 by a hand-picked group of friends of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, widely expanded the country’s mining investments and permitted water rights to be bought and sold. The effect of this deregulation in combination with an extensive and prolonged drought caused by climate change has greatly reduced availability of water.
The expansion of mining investments has led to great environmental degradation. Chile is the world’s second-largest producer of lithium. Lithium is a very light metal and a key component in the production of batteries, used especially in electric vehicles. With EV production expanding globally, the demand for lithium has increased exponentially. With the increase in lithium production, the environmental impact on water has been very high.
Lithium is contained in a brine beneath the floor of the desert. The process of extracting the brine also extracts fresh water. The brine is then spread out to dry, evaporating all the water. Research confirms that lithium mining causes an imbalance between salt and fresh water, causes temperatures to rise at soil level which, in turn, increases evaporation. Indigenous peoples have campaigned to restore their rights to the water for their livelihoods.
The human right to water was emphasized by Leo Heller, the former special rapporteur on human rights to drinking water and sanitation, in a strongly worded statement in August 2020. According to The water Diplomat, the government of Chile was asked to “clarify” its choice to place economic development ahead of human rights, identifying controversial agriculture and energy projects at the heart of its rebuke of the country.
“The Chilean Government would not be fulfilling its international human rights obligations if it prioritizes economic development projects over the human rights to water and health,” he said in a statement.
The current ongoing drought has also pushed Chileans to determine rules around the ownership of water resources, given the long-standing drought experienced throughout the country and the ever-increasing water scarcity.
As the country’s economy is highly dependent on its natural resources, economic interests play a major role. The committee aims to keep a firm hand on the country’s resources.
Attacks on environmental activists in Chile continue. In December, Javiera Rojas was found dead with her hands and feet bound. She was well known in northern part of the country for her participation in protests against the Prime Thermoelectric project and in the successful campaign to cancel construction of the Tranca dam in 2016. The protests centered around local community access to water and harm to local wildlife.
During a session of the constitutional assembly a delegate addressed Rojas’s killing and promised to create a charter with greater environmental protections