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Chile seeks paradigm shift in water management

The Chilean Water Authority is implementing one of the most profound reforms of the 1981 Water Law.

This is Law No. 21,435, which was published in April 2022 and took 12 years to draft.

It turns how water is managed on its head by prioritizing human consumption, domestic subsistence use (water that a person withdraws for personal consumption, drinking water for their animals or growing fruits and vegetables), and sanitation.

At the same time, by ensuring harmony and balance between the ecosystem protection function and the productive function of water.

domestic subsistence, Chile seeks paradigm shift in water management
Chile needs to protect its glaciers (Photo internet reproduction)

The axes of this reform are four:

  • the right to water and sanitation, which prioritizes human consumption,
  • ecosystem conservation,
  • governance, territorial management, and sustainable production,
  • and water efficiency.

It imposes requirements on water users and the General Directorate of Water (DGA) of the Ministry of Public Works.

Rodrigo Sanhueza, Director General of Water at the Ministry of Public Works (MOP), explained that the reforms introduced a paradigm shift.

“Before this reform, the General Directorate of Water was required to establish a right when water was available and without prejudice to the rights of use of third parties, in strict compliance with the order in which it had been requested, and could not give priority to any use.”

“With the new amendment to the Water Law, the General Directorate of Water must consider a higher standard, such as human consumption, domestic subsistence use, and sanitation, when considering rights of use in places where water is still available, and also always ensure the preservation of the ecosystem.”

“There are deadlines that must be met to implement this reform, which depends on us as a service and on the users since we have to modify about 80 procedures and standards, adapt four regulations, and create five new ones.”

“At the same time, water users must carry out procedures to reconcile their water use rights, that is, to have them registered in the Real Estate Registry and then in the Public Water Registry, and this applies to all those who had rights before the publication of this law,” said Sanhueza.


To make progress in human consumption, it was established that rural sanitary services responsible for water supply in rural areas could obtain a transitional permit to withdraw 12 liters per second while the application for the definitive right of use is being processed.

This is already being applied in the extreme regions of Arica and Parinacota on Chile’s northern border and in the Araucanía and Los Lagos areas in the south.

In addition to permission to extract water for human use from wells dug on the organization’s land, some of its members’ land, or state land, the authority must be informed of the existence and location of the work.

To ensure the conservation of ecosystems, that is, the role of water in maintaining the conditions that allow the evolution and development of species and ecosystems, the reformed Water Code has reinforced the concept of sustainability for both surface and groundwater with a series of practical tools.

Central to this is creating a new type of water use right for non-extractive or in situ purposes such as environmental protection, sustainable tourism, recreational or sports projects, and other regulations to preserve ecosystem life and protect water.

Similarly, water use rights may not be established in glaciers, and the state may reserve surface or groundwater to provide subsistence and ecosystem conservation functions, among others.


This issue is addressed regarding sustainable conservation and water efficiency by creating more information for water resource management or “water intelligence.”

As for governance and territorial management, work is being done to form and strengthen user organizations, especially groundwater communities, since there are 3,400 organizations for surface water and only 15 for groundwater.

“It is essential that rights holders in areas that are in prohibition and restriction zones due to aquifer depletion organize themselves into groundwater communities to exercise control by monitoring withdrawals and denouncing situations that are out of the norm, a measure that could help stop the decline of an aquifer,” said the director general of the Water Authority.

In this sense, the Authority has also participated in the launch of the Watershed Councils, promoted as a new management structure by the Inter-Ministerial Committee for a Just Transition in Water Management, composed of the Ministries of Environment, Public Works, Agriculture, Mines, Science, and Technology.

“These watershed councils are designed to bring together all stakeholders in a watershed for integrated water management, focusing on human water consumption and the rational use of this resource for productive activities.”

“As an agency, we have worked with the Ministry of Environment and regional governors to identify the 16 pilot watersheds, one per region, where this structure will begin operations.”

“In addition, based on the experience gained in establishing the ‘pilot basin councils,’ a draft law will be presented with the structure and main functions of these bodies,” Sanhueza said.

As input to these basin councils, the governing body will prepare the strategic water resource plans for these pilot basins, taking into account climate change, water availability, and future needs for each of them, and align them with the enactment of the Framework Law on Climate Change.

In addition to the progress made in implementing the reforms of the Water Law, the Director General of the Water Authority highlighted that the institution faces other challenges, such as the further strengthening of the human resources and technical control teams.

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