Chile's dictatorship-era water code is getting a makeover

FILE PHOTO: A block of ice broken off from Grey glacier floats at the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean lawmakers took further votes on Wednesday to overhaul the country's dictatorship-era water code, aiming to replace decades-old legislation that largely privatized water rights with a new code that prioritizes human consumption and the environment.

The reform bill, which has languished in Congress for 10 years, has made big strides thus far in 2021, including a unanimous Senate vote late last month blessing the overall goals of the legislation.

The revamped code approved late on Wednesday requires that new concessions for water be temporary and not indefinite, as was the case under the original code passed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the early 1980s. The legislation also prohibits water rights over glaciers, protects water in indigenous territories and allows the government to establish reserves in environmentally sensitive areas.

Socialist Senator Isabel Allende said in the debate that lawmakers' object was not to eliminate rights, but to put them under a microscope and provide strong regulation that prioritizes human consumption.

"Future [rights] will not be saleable or inheritable...and speculation will not be permitted," Allende said. "These are enormous advances."

The bill now heads back to the Chamber of Deputies for final procedural votes.

Chile, the world's top copper miner, has been hit by severe drought for nearly a decade that has forced mines to double down on efforts to reduce water use and build desalinization plants, and farms and vineyards to rethink sources for irrigation.

Mounting pressure for change following countrywide protests over inequality in 2019 has further forced the hand of lawmakers who long dragged their feet on the reforms.

But the last word is likely to come from the country's recently convened constitutional convention, which is currently drafting a new constitution. Many of the convention's delegates have called for water to be enshrined in the new Magna Carta as a human right.

"Until we recognize water as a fundamental right in the Constitution, this project is only an advance ... the task of the Constitutional Convention is clear," lawmaker Ximena Rincon, of the centrist Christian Democratic party, said during a session late last month.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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