By Fábio Galão
A river that crosses Argentina and Chile is the subject of diplomatic embarrassment between the two countries.
In late April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Gabriel Boric government sent a statement to the Argentines asking for explanations about the flow of the Vizcachas River, which has suffered a reduction on the Chilean side in recent months.
The Argentine Foreign Ministry confirmed last week that it had asked the Undersecretariat of Management and Planning of Water Projects of the Ministry of Public Works to provide the requested information.
The controversy began in February, when rural producers and business people from Torres del Paine, in the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic region, denounced that the flow of the river, which originates in southeastern Argentina, in Santa Cruz, and flows into Chilean territory, had completely dried up on the Chilean side. The reason was a series of construction works on the Argentinean side.
Technicians from the National Border and State Limits Directorate (Difrol) visited a farm in the region and pointed out that the drying up of the river “is not due to natural causes” and could only be attributed to some “intervention” in Argentine territory.
Sergio Rodríguez Oro, lawyer for the owners of a local farm, told El Mercurio that “for the first time in history, the channel [of the Vizcachas River] has dried up.”
“Specifically, at least six works that conduct and completely divert water tens of kilometers from the canal,” he pointed out.
Chilean farmers and businessmen argue that the alteration in the river flow would violate an environmental treaty, which included a protocol on shared water resources and was signed between the two countries in 1991.
Chile’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Gloria de la Fuente, said in an interview with Radio Pauta that the Chilean response in sending the communiqué to Argentina followed “the parameters of institutionality.”
“That’s all it is; there’s no note of protest. What we are doing is raising the proper background,” he said.
Meanwhile, the opposition to Boric called for a tougher stance from the Chilean government.
Congressman Christian Matheson, representing the Magellan region and the Chilean Antarctic, suggested taking the matter to the Hague Tribunal.
“This cannot just stay in a document with little or no effect. What the State of Chile should demand is that any intervention in the Vizcachas River is stopped and that the natural flow of this international channel be restored since it affects not only the rural producers of the Magellan region but also flora and fauna of the Torres del Paine surroundings.”
“Therefore, one should not rule out going to the International Court in The Hague to restore international law, which today is affected,” Matheson said.
“I wonder, what would Argentina say if we intervened in the Rubens River and the Penitente River, which are part of the beginning of the Gallegos River in the Argentine Republic?” he added.
The Defense Committee of the Chilean Chamber said it would send a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to question the portfolio about what happened and what actions it intends to take next.
In an article for the El Mostrador website, Jorge Guzmán, professor and researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de Chile, said that the controversy over the Vizcachas River should not lead to a bilateral crisis between the two countries.
Still, in the context of the 1991 protocol on shared water resources, it makes clear “two structural deficiencies” in Chile’s foreign policy.
According to the researcher, the first is that no Chilean state body maintains up-to-date monitoring or follow-up of the application of this and other obligations agreed with Argentina, with whom the country has about 5,300 kilometers of common border.
“With a worrying regularity, this deficiency ends up becoming a circumstance that threatens the interests of the country,” said Guzmán, citing the 1998 Agreement on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, considered harmful to Chile and which concerns one of the largest freshwater reservoirs on the planet.
The second point highlighted by the researcher is that the protocol on shared water resources gave Argentina the power to manage Chilean watersheds that amount to about 27% of the country’s land territory.
“On the other hand, most of Argentina’s water resources are concentrated on the borders with Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay; less than 3% of Argentina’s water can be co-managed with Chile,” he compared.
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