Millions without water or proper sanitation after heavy rains near Chile’s capital

People line up for water at a supply point on Sunday. (Liev☭ #SOSEstiba/Twitter)

Millions of people in Chile’s capital city lost access to running water over the weekend, sparking a sanitation emergency and highlighting mounting critiques of the city’s privatized water supply.

Residents of Santiago woke Sunday to dry faucets as heavy rainstorms contaminated a major river, forcing authorities to cut off drinking water to more than 60 percent – about 1.5 million – of households. According to BBC, officials said the water supply from the Maipo river would be cut to most of the city until the water flowed clear.

The news agency also reported at least three people have been killed and 19 are missing as rivers overflowed and bridges were washed away.

Miguel Luna, a law student who lives in one of the affected communities, said he was able to stock up on basic food items after authorities warned of the flooding. Others, he added, have not been as fortunate.

“My grandmother is 96 years old and has special needs for care, so it has been an even bigger problem for her,” Luna told Humanosphere. “In any case the distribution of drinking water by water trucks has been of great help, especially in poorer neighborhoods.”

Young children and older people are most vulnerable to dehydration, as loss of electrolytes occurs more rapidly in these populations. Weakened immune systems also make these groups more susceptible to communicable diseases like gastrointestinal illness, leading to diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration.

The authorities set up 60 water supply points, but El Popular reported Sunday that people fought over bottles of water at supermarkets, unsure when the water supply would be restored.

The city’s residents are accustomed to sudden cuts in the water supply. As global temperatures rise and mountain glaciers retreat, experts say Santiago’s water availability is predicted to fall 40 percent by 2070.

Some advocacy groups, such as the Movement for the Recovery of Water and Life, which campaigns for public ownership of water, say the problem is political.

“What we need is a transformation away from the private model of water ownership and to recognize water as a human right,” the group’s spokeswoman Francisca Fernández told the Guardian last year.

The majority of the city’s residents purchase their water supply from the private company Aguas Andinas at one of the highest tariffs in Latin America. The Guardian reported that there was at least one protest in Santiago last year to demand the repeal of the neoliberal laws that privatized Chile’s water supply in the 1980s, which they say has failed to address concerns over insufficient supply in the future.

“This is not Cuba or Venezuela, it is Santiago, Chile, where we are told that [privatization] is efficient until they cut off the water supply,” wrote one Twitter user in Spanish on Sunday.

At the end of 2016, the Chamber of Deputies approved a modification to the laws that seeks to grant the State the power to intervene in the case of drought emergencies. The bill, which will be discussed in the Senate next month, would prioritize human consumption of water over production and profit.

The director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, Lucio Cuenca, is one of many critics that say the modification is insufficient if it still allows the private enterprises to profit on the vast majority of water use.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com