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Chile must prioritise water and health rights over economic interests, says UN expert

20 August 2020


GENEVA (20 August 2020) – The Government of Chile must not prioritise avocado plantations and electricity generation over the rights to health and water of its people, and businesses should address the adverse impact of their operations on these rights, a UN human rights expert said today.

“The Chilean Government would not be fulfilling its international human rights obligations if it prioritises economic development projects over the human rights to water and health,” said Léo Heller, UN special rapporteur on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation. He referred specifically to the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, southeast of the capital, Santiago, and the avocado business in Petorca province in the Valparaiso, region north of Santiago.

“The Government is obliged to guarantee the supply of sufficient water to all people,” Heller said. “These two economic projects may put that supply at risk, which is particularly worrying during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have asked the Government of Chile to clarify both these issues.”

Chile is one of the world’s top exporters of avocados. Because of extreme water shortages, the Government last year declared a “water emergency” in Petorca – where one avocado tree uses more water per day than the quota set aside for each resident – and the province has suffered extreme water shortages since last year.

Since 2016, residents have been allocated 50 litres of water per person per day; water is delivered in uncertified tanker trucks and sometimes is so unsafe it gives children diarrhoea.

“This is not enough to meet the usual domestic needs during the pandemic,” Heller said. “The Chilean Ministry of Health recommends frequent hand-washing as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so the government must guarantee adequate water to everyone and ensure businesses do not undermine the State’s ability to meet its obligations.”

On 8 April 2020, the Chilean Ministry of Health approved a resolution increasing the amount to 100 litres per person daily in Petorca province. Eight days later, in a decision that may be illegal under international law, it revoked the resolution. At the same time, “inconceivably,” Heller said, the Government continues to grant new water rights to agricultural companies and has not managed to control the illegal and excessive use of water by avocado companies.

The other contentious project is the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in the Andes Mountains, which generates electricity by diverting the three main tributaries of the Maipo River through some 67 km of tunnels.

“Not only may this project reduce the main source of drinking water for residents of Santiago de Chile, it could also make air pollution in the capital worse,” Heller said, by damaging the “green corridor” of the Maipo River basin that has helped offset pollution.

During implementation of the project, which is due to come online in December, “although the Government has investigated damages to the environment no effective measure was taken to guarantee the human right to water for people affected by this megaproject”, Heller said.

The expert’s call has been endorsed by Mr. Saad Alfarargi, Special Rapporteur for the right to Development; Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Ms. Anita Ramasastry (Chair), Mr. Dante Pesce (Vice-Chair), Mr. Surya Deva, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, and Mr. Githu Muigai, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.


The Expert: Mr. Léo Heller (Brazil) is the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed in November 2014. He is a researcher in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil and was previously Professor of the Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil from 1990 to 2014.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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