February 2015

Water Management and Acequias in Chile


Ovidio Melo, Rafaela Retamal and José Luis Arumí


If you have enjoyed the excellent wines of Chile or the delicious fruit and grapes that brighten the North American winter, you have had direct, personal contact with the acequias of Chile.


While Chile is almost as long as the United States is wide, the distance from the country’s Pacific coast to the eastern Andean border averages only 110 miles. The irrigated central valley is 620 miles long, with Santiago in the center. To the north is the Atacama, the driest desert on Earth. The Chilean Patagonia to the south is as rainy as coastal Alaska.


In central Chile, irrigation is needed during summer months because rain is concentrated during Chile’s winter—May to August. As in New Mexico, agriculture depends on water stored in the mountain snowpack and groundwater systems that feed the rivers. The Andes are so high in Chile that glaciers also contribute to the watersheds. Streamflow is diverted from rivers and delivered to the croplands through complex networks of irrigation canals.


Through the 1990s, most of the irrigation in Chile was done by acequias. A traditional person we used to see at the fields was El Palero, the counterpart of New Mexico’s mayordomo. The introduction of new irrigation technology and the opening of new markets for Chilean fruit have changed agriculture. Today, El Palero is being replaced by technicians operating pressurized irrigation systems.


Because irrigation is the main water user in central Chile, farmers have been responsible for water administration, organized in what we call “Organizaciones de Usuarios de Agua” or Water Users Organizations (WUOs). WUOs bring together the tasks of extraction, conveyance, distribution and storage in order to allocate water for its best use. In addition, they act as the initial forum for conflict resolution, maintain updated member registries and oversee and monitor extractions, among other things. In that sense, the Chilean WUOs have many similarities to New Mexico’s acequias, which is not a surprise because we share a similar history.


Before independence, all areas of Spanish America were characterized by the same social and political structures. In Chile, water grants were made by the governor, who represented the viceroy of Perú and the president of the Royal Court. For their part, the governor and the council designated water judges, who distributed the resource in areas of scarcity. During the first century of independence, water management went through no significant changes. The president of the Republic had the authority to make water grants and delegated this power to intendants and governors, who appointed the water judges.


The first written Chilean water regulations date to 1819, during the administration of President Bernardo O’Higgins, who issued a Supreme Decree that defined the volume of the regadoras a unit of flow approximately half a cubic foot per second, forms of sale, and responsibility for intake structures. Later, in 1855, the first Civil Code was adopted. It included regulations not substantially different from those previously described. Then, various municipal ordinances were adopted to solve water-grant distribution conflicts in the northern and central zones and organize the use of water grants through the creation of vigilance committees. Consequently, the water judges had to resolve conflicts, and members of the vigilance committees adjudicated water distribution according to grants given by the state. Those vigilance committees were the first attempts to organize management around water demand, a model that has endured to the present day.


The Chilean water management system is similar to the acequia systems of New Mexico in that both stem from Spanish tradition, at the northern and southern extremes of the American colonies. Until the early 20th century in New Mexico and the late 20th century in Chile, these systems relied on water management governed by the people that use the water.

In New Mexico, the 1907 water code put the Office of the State Engineer in charge of all waters, separated water rights from agricultural lands and gave priority rights to Indian tribes. In Chile in the 1970s, when the Agrarian Reform broke up large estates, centralized management disappeared, and acequias started declining. In the 1980s, Neoliberal programs separated land from water rights, which were privatized with the emergence of agribusiness. But politics aside, across history, the management of water remains with WUOs, with the state still in a regulatory role.


One major difference is that, in Chile, the water rights of indigenous communities have not yet been taken into account. As a result, over the years they have brought lawsuits against the state. The rights of these communities are now included in discussions about possible modifications to the current water law.


Globalization pressures, international markets and demands from social sectors seeking a better quality of life, environmental protection and respect for indigenous communities are changing agriculture and irrigation in Chile. The system is evolving to respond to new social demands and expanding uses for water for human consumption, agriculture and the environment.


The authors wish to express our thanks for the support given by the Chilean Scientific Council (Conicyt) through the project Conicyt/Fondap/15130015.


José Luis Arumí is a civil engineer, research professor and dean of the School of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Concepción, Chile, where Ovidio Melo and Rafaela Retamal are his colleagues. arumi.joseluis@gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Articles