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Bolivia and Chile negotiate rights to a river
The Silala River, Water in Dispute
By Sandra Guijarro Vilela

The current fight between Chile and Bolivia over the Silala River underscores the inescapable issue of water shortages worldwide and the conflicts they can provoke

SANTIAGO - The distribution of water from a small river is at the center of a new political battle between Chile and Bolivia. Though relatively insignificant in size, the Silala is important not only because it carries Bolivia's claim to a Pacific coast access (lost in the war of 1879), but also because it exemplifies the growing problem of water scarcity around the globe - and the wars it might produce.

The Chilean government affirms that the Silala, located in southeastern Bolivia, is an international river due to the route it follows and, as such, its use is regulated by international law. Bolivia, however, maintains that the matter involves flows originating from some 94 springs in its territory, which are not governed by international law.

According to La Paz, the Silala originates in Bolivian territory and its waters are diverted to Chile by a canal built under a Bolivian concession to the Antofagasta-Bolivian Railway Company, a Chilean firm now known as Ferrocarril Antofagasta-Bolivia. The company obtained two water concessions: the first in 1906, granted by the Chilean government, and a second in 1908, from the Bolivian authorities. Chile has been using the river now in dispute for almost a century.

Bolivia recently put the exploitation of the Silala River up for bid, awarding the Bolivian firm Ductec rights for the next 40 years, for a payment of 46.8 million dollars.

The bilateral controversy reached its peak when Ductec decided to charge Codelco, the Chilean national copper enterprise, and Ferrocarril Antofagasta-Bolivia to use water from the Silala. As of July this year, their bills totaled one million dollars.

For Chilean lawyer Ximena Fuentes, who specializes in international law, “the origin of the dispute is clear. It is not a controversy about two countries fighting over the utilization of a river's limited resources. Chile has been using the water for a long time while Bolivia does not exploit the river in any way.

“ The root of the problem “can be found in political reasons and an attempt to defend the supposed sovereignty of Bolivia over the water. 'Supposed', because regarding an international river none of the riverside dwellers can affirm they have absolute sovereignty over the shared water resources,” said the Oxford-educated expert.

Chile and Bolivia must resolve whether or not the Silala is an international or national river, a job that seems destined for geographers. In the case that the Bolivian argument is upheld, Santiago would only be able to claim rights based on the Bolivian concessions to the Chilean companies. If Chile is able to prove that it is an international river, the use and distribution of the water resources would be governed by the rules outlined in international law.

A Symbol

Water has been a central matter in Chilean-Bolivian relations. Forty years ago, another controversy arose over Chile's use of the Lauca River to irrigate fields in the northern valley of Azapa. That dispute, with the ever-present Bolivian demand for territorial access to the Pacific, meant more than 20 years of bilateral negotiations without ever reaching an accord.

“The water issue is so deep that it led Bolivia to break off diplomatic relations (with Chile in 1978), renewed many years later,” explains an official at the Chilean Foreign Ministry. Currently, each of the two nations maintains only a consular delegation in the other.

Given its volume and size, the Silala is not a significant river, but it has become a symbol of water's importance to the global development and economy.

Chile has abundant water resources in the south, but not the extreme north, where the Atacama Desert is located. “Water is a finite resource and we are reaching the limits of its exploitation. We must make technological efforts to satisfy growing demands, find new sources, reutilize water where possible and promote desalinization projects,” commented Jaime Muñoz, head of the water resources division at the Chilean Ministry of Public Works.

Water sources around the world are depleting while demand and pollution continue to rise. There are even those who predict that the third world war will be a battle over access to water. Though such an outlook might seem exaggerated, some 10 million people die each year around the world due to lack of water or to consuming water from tainted sources. It is estimated that in the next 15 years, 500 million people will migrate to regions where this resource is more readily accessible - a movement which implies further economic and political tensions.

Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq are today caught up in disputes over water rights to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Tensions also exist between Egypt and Ethiopia, and between India and Bangladesh, for similar reasons.

“The countries that hold the upper course of an international river control the situation because they can use the water simply by blocking the flow. The nations downstream are at a geographical disadvantage,” says the specialist Fuentes.

A similar story - though in a distant time and place - involved the German states of Wurttemberg, Prussia and Baden in 1927, when they claimed rights over the Danube River. The German Constitutional Court established at the time that the rights over an international river were limited by the obligation to not diminish the rights of other States. It set the precedent for the principle of equitable participation, upheld by a 1997 United Nations convention on the use of international waters for non-navigational purposes, and which Chile is citing in its claims on the Silala.

Intense Negotiations

Chile and Bolivia are engaged in intensive negotiations over the Silala, according to the sources at the Chilean Foreign Ministry and the Bolivian Consulate in Santiago consulted by Tierramérica.

According to those sources, there is apparently a “gentlemen's agreement ” to not speak publicly about the water resource dispute.

A resolution to the Silala River dispute would be a contribution to the annals of international law. Neither of the governments has ruled out the possibility of turning to arbitration. “I would not be apprehensive about the idea of international arbitration because it is a normal step when differences cannot be resolved through direct dialogue. But I believe it is possible to find a solution by meeting halfway,” Gustavo Fernández, Bolivia's general consul in Santiago, recently told the media.

Chilean Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear has said that Chile expects the Silala matter “to be resolved through bilateral dialogue. If that does not occur we will have to face other scenarios, and arbitration could be one of them.”

“When two States decide to submit a dispute to arbitration, they are turning power over to a third party to decide the case in a legally binding ruling. The countries must be prepared to accept the ruling, whatever the result. Because of this, nations generally resist arbitration. I think Bolivia and Chile should first explore the possibility of an arrangement that is acceptable to both parties,” commented Fuentes.

Water shortages have been the source of controversy, litigation and war. The potential for a future confrontation of major dimensions due to the lack of water is not necessarily a pessimistic fantasy.

Specialists in the area have suggested numerous points for the global water debate: a world policy on water resource management, greater technological development for recycling water that is polluted by industrial or agricultural processes and, above all, fomenting greater awareness about the right of all humans to water, in other words, to life.

* The author is a journalist and Tierramérica contributor.

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