Privatized Water Is in Cross-Hairs of Chile Constitution Writers
(Bloomberg) -- Chile has taken another major step toward enshrining water as a human right as depleting supplies increase scrutiny of one of the world’s most privatized systems of allocations.
Last week, members of an assembly elected to write a new constitution presented a proposal to make access to water and sanitation a fundamental right, said Jaime Bassa, vice president of the 155-person Constituent Convention.
While the current charter born in the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship lists water as a public good, it also states that allocations function as private property. By protecting the rights of agricultural, energy and mining companies, the system helped Chile become a major exporter of everything from copper to avocado and wine. But more than a decade of drought and lax oversight has left some communities high and dry, elevating water to a key social justice issue.
“Chile is the only country in the world that specifically says in its constitution that water rights are treated as private property, Bassa, a 44-year-old law professor at University of Valparaiso, said in an interview. “Rights can be bought and sold as if they were company stocks.”
The article proposed by one of 10 commissions in the Constituent Convention would see the state guarantee water and sanitation as an inalienable right, as well as protect water basins during the climate crisis, Bassa said.
The water article is in line with a bill passed by the senate in July that includes capping currently unlimited water rights at a maximum of 30 years and empowering regulators to suspend rights that aren’t being used or if supplies are at risk.
Other proposals -- such as the right to life and assisted fertility and a revamp of the judicial system -- have also been submitted. All content probably will be presented by March or April and a fully drafted document should be ready by May or June to present to the next president in July, Bassa said.
Water is part of a broader push in Chile to overhaul a model that used privatized social services to help create one of the region’s most vibrant economies but left many people behind. Those concerns underpinned an eruption of street protests in 2019 that gave rise to the Constituent Convention.
“There is a Chile seen from abroad that shows all the benefits from the accumulation of the wealth of the neo-liberal model,” Bassa said. “But there is another Chile not seen from outside of a large majority of people left behind, of precarious conditions, of poverty.”
People should expect a new political and institutional design in the constitution that strengthens social cohesion and enshrines fundamental rights, as seen in some European countries or Uruguay, he said.
The winner of Sunday’s presidential election probably will call a plebiscite to approve or reject the draft constitution by August or September.
The next president will either be left-winger Gabriel Boric, of the same coalition under which Bassa was elected in May, or conservative Jose Antonio Kast. An admirer of the Pinochet years, Kast campaigned against drafting a new constitution and said he may do so again if it’s “bad.”
Chileans overwhelmingly voted in favor of a new constitution and later gave that task mostly to left-wing and independent representatives. But sentiment seems to have swung since then. Kast won the first-round election last month, and for the first time in decades the right holds half of the Senate and almost half of the lower house. That congressional makeup limits the chances of any radical policy.
Bassa’s reading is that there’s still undeniable demand for more social justice, but with varying views on how much free market or state involvement the new system must have.
“We know what we do not want -- more abuse,” he said. “The ways to get there may be different.”
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