Chile and Bolivia agree on status of Silala River

Following correspondence with a legal expert, a corrected and updated version of the this article, published in TWD's November edition, is being republished

8 Dec 2022 by The Water Diplomat

The International Court of Justice in the Hague has stated that Chile and Bolivia now agree on the status of the Silala River which originates in the Atacama Desert in Bolivia and flows for four kilometres before entering Chile. The two countries had disagreed on the status of the river since 1999 and a case was filed with the International Court of Justice by Chile in 2016. Chile sought declarations concerning the status of the Silala river system as an international watercourse as well as clarification of the resulting rights and obligations of both parties.  In 1999, Bolivia‚Äôs Minister of Foreign Affairs had addressed Chile, stating that the Silala lacked any characteristic of an international water course.  The Bolivian argument relied on a claim that Chilean concessionaries had altered the course of the river in 1908 and that without this intervention, the river would never have crossed the border. Bolivia therefore annulled the concession 1997.

The Silala river provides water for mining operations and human consumption for the region of Antofagasta. Chile has sought recognition of the river as an international watercourse and that customary international law applies to its waters. During the oral proceedings, Bolivia acknowledged that the Silala waters, including those parts that are artificially enhanced, qualify as an international watercourse. Bolivia now also recognizes that the customary international law applies to the entirety of the Silala waters. Given that the Parties agree with respect to the legal status of the Silala River system as an international watercourse and on the applicability of the customary international law to all the waters of the Silala, the Court finds that the claim made by Chile in this respect (submission a) no longer has any object and that, therefore, the Court is not called upon to give a decision thereon.

ICJ President Judge Joan Donoghue,  reading a judgement adopted by 15 judges, stated that the ICJ recognised the agreement between the parties and that the dispute no longer exists. As a result, the claims and counter claims no longer had any objective, and as a result, the court could not be called upon to pass judgement.