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Why did Chile's huge lagoon really disappear?

Naomi Larsson
March 8, 2022

When a large lagoon in central Chile dried up, climate change seemed the likeliest culprit. But researchers found a more insidious threat: systematic privatization of water. Could a new constitution change all that?

A small, upturned fishing boat on a dried-out lakebed
Scientists confirmed in 2018 that the Laguna de Aculeo had dried out completelyImage: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

A wealth of Inca gold lies at the bottom of Laguna de Aculeo, a lake in central Chile, according to old legend. On some nights, locals said, you could even see the gold shining in the pristine waters of the lagoon, which is surrounded by luscious hills and overlooked by the Andes mountains.

But the lagoon, once one of Chile's largest natural bodies of water, is now completely dry, with no signs of life. There was never any gold, as it turns out. But locals have come to realize the true wealth of this water.

"I heard birds singing all day because the flora and fauna in the lagoon was spectacular. You could see the fish swim under the water, it was so clear," said Viola Gonzalez Vera, who has lived by Aculeo, 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of the capital, Santiago, for the past 30 years.

The lake bed is now parched and cracked, scarred by frequent drought. Decaying jetties mark where the water used to be, like ghosts left behind to remind locals of what this place once was.

On a sandy beach beside a lake, a woman attaches a sail to a surfboard, a child stands in the background
In 2011, the lagoon was full enough for people to enjoy water sports such as windsurfingImage: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Chile has been suffering a megadrought for the past decade, with central regions receiving 30% less rainfall than usual. For years, climate change was believed to be behind Aculeo's disappearance.

The lagoon had survived for over 3,000 years, despite Chile being no stranger to drought. At the start of 2022, hydrology and water management researchers confirmed that the picture was more complex. The main culprit turned out to be overexploitation by humans

Disappearing lagoon, disappearing livelihoods

A peer-reviewed study published in the journal Sustainability in January 2022 found that, although below-average rainfall had had an effect over the past decade, there was "indisputable evidence" that water had disappeared because of human activity — mainly through diverting rivers and pumping groundwater from aquifers that had replenished the lake.

Even after four droughts with persistent low rainfall in the 20th century, the lagoon never came close to drying out, according to the study.

"But throughout the 1990s agricultural industries started deviating those rivers when the state started assigning 100% of the water rights of one river, and then another, then another," said Pablo Garcia-Chevesich, a Chilean professor at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona and co-author of the report.

In 2010, the Pintue River — an important tributary — was diverted completely. Large-scale farms producing cherries and avocados also established deep wells and pumped water directly from the lagoon.

A decaying wooden pier juts out into a dried lakebed
A wooden pier is a reminder that a lake once stood hereImage: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

As a result, "it didn't matter how much it rained anymore; for the first time, the lagoon was unable to support a drought," said Garcia-Chevesich, who is also a member of the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme of UNESCO.

When the lagoon dried up and the nature around disappeared, so too did the tourists. At the same time, small-scale farmers nearby watched their harvests shrink and animals die.

Over the years, some in the community had lost access to safe drinking water as new summer homes with pristine lawns and swimming pools guzzled up the supply. But this was nothing compared to the exploitation that occurred when the avocado and cherry producers moved in, said locals.

"I've seen people crying in the street because they didn't have water to brush their teeth," said Gonzalez Vera, who relies on a water tank kept in her backyard — just meters from where the lake once was. She fills up the tank with water that is delivered by truck to the village.

Garcia-Chevesich blames the state for the loss of the lagoon and resulting impact on locals. "It's the out-of-control assignment of water rights without any study or evaluation that includes climate change or social or ecological damage," he said.

It's a story that has played out across the country.

When water is a commodity and not a human right

Chile's constitution, written during Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, protects private ownership of water, making it an economic good. The 1981 Water Code also enables the government to grant permanent and transferable water rights to private owners free of charge.

This created a market for water and made it difficult for the state to govern Chile's water supplies. In Aculeo, for example, there were no audits carried out to manage consumption levels before the state handed out rights to water.

"The water problem in Chile runs very deep. It's understood as another resource to exploit," said Estefania Gonzalez, campaign coordinator for environmental NGO Greenpeace Chile.

Protesters on the street cooperate to bring down a traffic post safely
In 2019, large-scale unrest broke out over deep social inequality in ChileImage: Claudio Abarca Sandoval/NurPhoto/picture alliance

More than 1 million people across the country lack access to safe drinking water, while some parts of Chile are facing more frequent and prolonged droughts because of climate change. All the while, water has been overexploited by individuals and industry for decades.

Thirsty, extractive industries such as lithium and copper mining drive Chile's economy. Nearly 80% of the country's freshwater goes to agriculture, most infamously to the avocado. Each fruit takes around 70 liters (about 18 gallons) of water to produce.

The situation became so bad in Petorca, a town in Chile's Valparaiso region surrounded by avocado production, that the government declared a "water emergency," trucking in water and allocating each resident 50 liters (12 gallons) a day.

But Chileans are challenging the status quo.

A new green vision for the future

Currently, 155 elected delegates chosen from across civil society — the majority of them independent and left-leaning — are redrafting Chile's dictatorship-era constitution, which was a core demand of deadly nationwide protests against deep social inequality in 2019.

An aerial view of a dried-out lagoon was for decades a big tourist attraction near Santiago
An aerial view of the dried out Laguna de Aculeo, which was for decades a big tourist attraction near SantiagoImage: Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images

It is a rare chance for a country to create a new vision for the future, and one in which the environment is being given top priority. For example, 81 of the constitutional convention members supported a Greenpeace campaign to protect water rights and ecosystems in the new constitution.

"We will put an end to stockpiling and hoarding water," Carolina Vilches Fuenzalida, a convention member and environmental activist, told DW. "We will restrict land grabbing and water hoarding to stop building up these landscapes of dry valleys."

Vilches Fuenzalida and other delegates said one of their priorities is to create a statute to change the legal nature of water, ensuring safe access and sanitation for all Chilean people. The proposals will be debated over the coming months and each bill will need a two-thirds majority to make it onto the final document, before going to a public referendum later this year.

In March, millennial leftist Gabriel Boric will head up a new government after winning December's presidential election. Boric, who came to power on a campaign pushing for environmental change, has said he will back the constitutional change.

"The whole country is waiting for him. If he doesn't do anything [about the water issues], we're talking about huge social consequences — we might be talking about a new social explosion," said Garcia-Chevesich, referring to the protests in 2019. 

"But it will be an estallido ambiental [environmental explosion]," he added. 

Edited by: Jennifer Collins