Opening with scenes of desert and drought, Rescuing Water in Chile deals with water scarcity and inequality in the distribution of this essential resource. It depicts northern Chile, known as the epicenter of the country’s water struggles, through the perspectives of local farmers and water experts. Many of the stakeholders interviewed believe the country’s conflicts are rooted in the Chilean Water Code written in 1981. The interviewed geographer, Maria Fragkou, states that: “When a drought comes and it stops raining, it’s as if all the structural problems with respect to the unequal distribution of water in the country rise to the surface”.
The documentary starts by interviewing locals in Petorcas, an area heavily affected by drought and unequal water distribution. They show a river that has dried up due to industrial agribusiness, where large companies grow crops that demand enormous quantities of water while rural communities receive little.
The documentary highlights private and individual approaches to the problem. A public-private partnership aims to transfer water from the south to the north, taking advantage of the winter flow. Its executive director claims that the infrastructure is able to meet the demand of agriculture and of nearby cities. On the other side, a rural organization decides to capture fog from clouds to irrigate an ecological reserve.
In the town of Cerrillos de Tamaya, a government sponsored project shows farmers recycling wastewater. They explain how the process of filtering two ponds of grey water replenishes groundwater levels, boosts their fodder and brings them money. In another farm nearby, a farmer manages to reduce the water consumption of his trees by following sustainable agronomic practices to increase water retention.
In the end, the producers go to several communities and elementary schools, where students are also using recycled wastewater to irrigate their school gardens. In one of the schools, children rap a song to create awareness about water drought and scarcity in Chile. Another group of children, who are growing a lemon tree in the middle of the desert, show they are learning to appreciate the value of water and understand the consequences of climate change and unequal water access.
As Maria Fragkou, the geographer, and Alberto Mayol, a sociologist, mention in the documentary, many of the country's water related issues are rooted in the 1980 Chilean Constitution and the 1981 Water Code. As discussed by Mentor (2001), the 1973 military overthrow of Allende was a response to land reforms and a deteriorating economy (Mentor, 2001). The Pinochet government, following the advice of a neoliberal group of University of Chicago trained economists known as the “Chicago Boys”, instituted a series of government reforms prioritizing private property rights and market forces.
“The 1981 Water Code enlarged and strengthened private property rights, separated water rights from land ownership, promoted market forces and mechanisms, and reduced the state’s role in water resource management and regulation” (Bauer, 1998).
Crucially, Chile further distinguishes between surface and groundwater rights. The Water Code has been a source of contention ever since, as many question whether the legal regime actually contributes to the country’s (or just the private sector’s) development.
One example of the private sector’s approach to the problem of agricultural water supply is known as the “Reguemos Chile Corporation’s waterway (“Reguemos Chile”, 2016). The aim is to transport water from the south to the north of Chile (“Reguemos Chile”, 2017). However, the Chilean state has already promised additional desalination plants to supply the northern macroregion (Donoso, 2018). It seems that the public and private spheres are not working in tandem, which therefore begs the question : does the current Chilean institutional and policy climate allow for coordinated and effective addressing of the water scarcity issue?
To build on this structural issue, since 2010 the country has experienced one of the most severe droughts over the last century (source 1). The so-called Mega-Drought (MD) mostly affects Central Chile, the part of the country where most of the population lives and most of the agriculture is produced. As shown in the documentary, this has led to a water crisis in the Petorca basin, exposing the underlying socio-environmental conflict (source 6).
The documentary illustrates how local, poor communities and small farmers are defenseless in regard to agribusiness. Approximately 90% of the Petorca region's cultivated area are avocados or tropical fruit trees that demand enormous quantities of water (Aitken et al., 2016). Because of their profitability, both are continuously planted (Duran-Llacer et al., 2020), while, in combination with a lack of appropriate soil management, the land is destroyed (Iglesias & Rojas, 2019).
Similarly, the case of Norte Chico shows how large-scale farmers exert greater control over water, while the peasant farmers have decreasing access (Budds, 2004). ‘As a drop of water is worth more than a sack of gold to a thirsty man’, this raises questions about equitable distribution and emphasizes the need for faster policy change (Muñoz et al., 2020).
From a cinematographic perspective, the documentary communicates the water problems in Chile effectively. The film, despite its brief 25 minute length, hits many emotional notes that resonate with the viewer. The opening scenes depict dead rivers and dead cows, and compare before and after pictures of water flows in local rivers. They effectively sketch the human aspect while laying bare the structural issues by mixing interviews of local farmers with those of politics and water experts. An image of graffiti on a wall with the message “esto no es sequia, es saqueo” (this is not drought, but pillage) drives home the political nature of this biophysical problem.
They further show the responses of local communities by showing the simple, but effective, ways that these communities are coming together to confront their water scarcity problems. A particularly poignant end scene shows a group of rural children proudly presenting the lemon tree they are growing in the desert with greywater reuse. However, it is worth noting here that in many cases the actions undertaken by locals for preserving water constitute last resort solutions that are only necessary due to unsolved structural distribution issues.
Building on this point, we felt that the documentary mainly addressed demand side issues and did not give a meaningful answer to the structural issues underlying the water problems. The documentary does note that attempts to obtain statements from the ministries of environment and public works were unsuccessful, however we feel it would have been helpful to the audience if experts were asked about potential governance related solutions. Overall, the documentary was an excellent introduction to the water scarcity problems in Chile, and gave a hopeful, but measured, response. At the time of this review (2021), Chile was on course to reform their Constitution (and Water Code) later in the year.
Victor Lucas, Sebastiaan van der Linde, Ana Musicki Savic (Amsterdam Free University)