KAYAKERS, RAFTERS, AND LOCALS across Chile have recently been given cause to celebrate. For more than two decades, some of Chile’s greatest rivers have been at risk of being dammed by Spanish energy company Endesa. But on August 30, 2016, the company gave up water rights for the Bardon, Chillan 1 and 2, Futaleufu, Puelo and Huechun hydroelectric projects, all of which threatened some of the most pristine rivers found anywhere in the Americas.
Endesa filed an official statement with the Chilean government: “Taking into account the high annual cost for the company to maintain water rights without using them, and that the projects … were not technically and economically feasible to perform, and did not have the sufficient support from local communities, we’ve decided to waive the rights of water exploitation associated with the hydroelectric projects.”
Endesa estimates that this move caused a 52 million dollar loss for Endesa’s shareholders.
While it’s great news that Endesa is giving up their damming plans, the fight for these rivers to run freely is unfortunately far from over. In Chile, water rights for power generation are claimed on a first-come basis – meaning that any commercial entity can technically now claim the rights. The best case scenario for conservationists would be for a non-profit or coalition of conservation organizations to step up and claim the rights. They’d then be given a year to raise the money to pay the Chilean government an annual fine for non-development while they attempt to change the law to allow for something like a public water trust.
But these fines could eventually hit upwards of a million dollars per year, which is one of the reasons Endesa saw a financial incentive to abandoning their rights now instead of continuing to throw money at the project.
On a graver note, the rights are also now wide open for another hydroelectric company to claim. China is the world’s leader in dam building, and will most likely entertain the possibility of setting up shop in Patagonia. Hopefully they will realize straight away what it took Endesa two decades to learn – that it’s tricky business trying to build dams in a country whose population clearly cares more about conserving their precious rivers than they do about creating profits for foreign energy companies.