Chileans are fighting to protect their rivers, their glaciers, and their right to water

The Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, currently under construction just outside Santiago, Chile, threatens the water supply for over 7 million Chileans, and will have long-term devastating environmental impacts. Concerned citizens call the project “unviable” and are calling for it to be halted.

From January 23-26, Marcela Mella, spokesperson of the Citizen Coordinating Committee in Defense of the Cajón del Maipo, and Juan Pablo Orrego, Executive Director of Ecosistemas, and board member of International Rivers, will be in Washington, DC to present formal complaints to the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank for their financing of the project.

The project – a joint venture between US utility subsidiary AES Gener and Chilean mining company, Antofagasta Minerals (AMSA) – is being financed by nine banks, and was approved despite evidence of serious flaws in the environmental impact assessment and inadequate consultation. The project is also registered with the Clean Development Mechanism, through which companies can receive carbon credits for projects that reduce carbon emissions.

Alto Maipo, a “run-of-the-river” project that includes underground turbines but no dam, has been plagued with problems. Costs have far exceeded projections, and estimated energy generation will likely be far less than expected due to dwindling water resources (Chile has experienced eight consecutive years of drought, yet AES Gener didn’t evaluate the potential effects of climate change on the project.)

Despite being promoted as a public interest project, private mining interests will be one of the primary beneficiaries. It is estimated that approximately 35% of total energy generation will be dedicated to the AMSA “Pelambres” copper mine in northern Chile.

The environmental impacts of Alto Maipo will be devastating. The project will cause extreme hardship for residents downstream; it will cripple the Maipo Valley’s value as the third most important recreational and tourist area in Chile and will jeopardize the crucial environmental services that the Cajón del Maipo provides, including regulating the local climate, aerating and helping to alleviate air pollution in Santiago. More specifically, the project is projected to cause:

  • Dramatic limitations on water access: As a ‘run-of-the-river’ project, it is estimated to reduce the Yeso, Volcán and Colorado Rivers by up to 60%. These rivers, the main tributaries upstream from the Maipo river, are the main source of drinking water for Santiago’s 7 million residents, and irrigates thousands of hectares of farmland.
  • Desertification: A process already underway, desertification is projected to increase as a result of the project, and could impact a large area of in the Andes and accelerate the already fast melting of the area’s glaciers.
  • Significant erosion: The project will cause significant erosion to the riverbed due, affecting private and public infrastructure, including many intakes for drinking water, irrigation, bridges, and other waterways.
  • Impacts on protected areas: Chile’s Cajon del Maipo is home to the glacial Natural Monument (1994), two Nature Sanctuaries (1995 and 2008) as well as other protected areas and related denominations. All of these recognize the highly valued ecological and cultural assets could be at risk, as well as its rich paleontological and archeological elements.
  • Human Rights at risk: According to the Chilean National Institution of Human Rights, the project puts human rights at risk including the right to water, the right to information, and the right to a clean environment, among others.

Given the risks, the environmental impact assessment approved in 2009 falls far short, and has been described as “faulty,” “misinformed,” and, was reported by the special investigative commissions of the Lower Chamber of the Chilean Parliament, to be irregular process characterized by political intervention. The project’s impacts were not evaluated in an integrated way, the accumulative impacts of climate change ignored, and proper consultation was not carried out.

Not surprisingly, the project is highly unpopular, and faces mounting opposition from social, labor, ecclesiastic, and academic organizations, artists, and unions, as well as members of the Chilean Parliament. Chileans have taken to the streets in massive marches, and have publicly confronted authorities and company officers with their concerns. This broad opposition movement says the project is high risk and unnecessary, and was not approved for the public good but instead to benefit private interests.

Fourteen complaints were filed at the government’s office of the environment; many of those cases are ongoing. The Citizens’ Coordinating Committee has taken repeated action to try to stop the project, including bringing their concerns to the multilateral banks funding the project and demonstrating the project does not comply with the banks’ social and environmental policies.

Despite the environmental impacts and growing public outcry, preliminary works for the PHAM started three years ago, and the company claims that the project is 35% complete.

CIEL is working closely with Chilean partners from the Coordinating Committee and Ecosistemas to support advocacy visits to DC in 2015 and 2017, and has joined them as a petitioner on complaints at the World Bank and IDB.

Read more: factsheet