The Cisnes River is a Problem

The Cisnes River is a Problem

A rural town’s river vanished. Is Chile’s constitution to blame?

By Mariel E. Aranda and James Robinson in Santiago, Chile

On July 3, 2009, Santiago residents woke up to find the Cisnes River in their midst. The water had disappeared. The town’s population had grown from 300 to a little more than 2,000. Residents were forced to cross over the river in order to use the bathroom and otherwise get around. Even so, many residents would say, the river’s disappearance was a foregone conclusion: the people of Cisnes had become dependent on the water.

In a country where water is scarce and increasingly used for fuel, the Cisnes River is emblematic of a national problem: overuse of water resources, a problem that’s only growing as Chile slides toward water scarcity.

There are about 5,000 dams in Chile, according to UNESCO, and the country has just over 40 permanent rivers; none is large enough for humans to cross, let alone fish. The Cisnes, located in the middle of all the dams, is one of the last remaining. It is also the most problematic.

The problem begins in the mid-1980s, when Chile built a dam at the head of the Cisnes River basin. Some of the waters from the reservoir were diverted for irrigation, some for hydroelectricity, and some were lost to the river, which was then left to flow in an uncontrolled fashion. For the next 30 years, water from the Cisnes never returned to its natural flow, and in 1997 the dam was decommissioned and the water was released into the river, after more than four decades of overuse.

“We knew the water was being taken up because of the dams,” says Antonio Jiménez, a member of the National University of Chile’s Faculty of Environment. In the years since the decommissioning, the river has “decomposed.” The “organic” and “inorganic” components separate, taking different forms and flows. What’s left is a brown river with a single, broad, brown current that is, unfortunately

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