Patagonia's River Debate

Patagonia boasts one of the world's great water reserves, with deep glacial lakes, two of the planet's largest non-polar ice fields and powerful, pristine rivers rushing from the Andes to the Pacific. It's a dream if you're a salmon, a nature lover or kayaker. Or a hydroelectric company.

In May 2011, a Chilean government commission approved a US$7-billion-dollar plan to build five dams on two of the world's wildest rivers – the Aisén region's Baker and Pascua rivers. Behind the dams was HydroAysén, a Chile-based conglomerate comprised of Spanish-Italian multinational Endesa and the Chilean company Colbún. Installing the world's longest transmission lines with towers would have required a clear-cut equivalent to the distance from Maine to Florida. A protest march in Santiago attracted an unanticipated 30,000 citizens.

Chile's peculiar water laws were behind the commercial rush. After the Pinochet regime privatized the national energy company Endesa, it was sold to foreign investors. According to the report Conflicts Over Water in Chile (edited by the Chilean nongovernment organization, Chile Sustentable), 80% of Chile's non-consumptive water rights are foreign owned.

After an eight-year battle, the Chilean government overturned the environmental permits for the projects. In 2017, HydroAysén announced that they would liquidate the project and return water rights for both the Pascua and Baker rivers to the state, a major victory for the environment.