Going with the flow

Could Bolivia and Chile’s claim over the Silala river worsen bilateral relations?

The Silala river bisects Chile and Bolivia and is a significant freshwater resource for local communities. Legal ownership has been a source of geopolitical tension between the two countries for years. Ownership is currently being disputed at the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) in the Hague. The Bolivian defence team are to present evidence this week alleging that the Silala rises from several springs in its territory and that it was artificially improved to optimise the flow of water that flows to Chile. 

A former Bolivian minister of foreign affairs explained, “As the final verdict of the ICJ will be delivered by mid-April, it is likely that tensions will rise until that time and likely for some time after. The outcome is anticipated to favour Chile, which will preclude any possibility of an improved bilateral relationship.” 

“As the final verdict of the ICJ will be delivered by mid-April, it is likely that tensions will rise until that time and likely for some time after.”

A former Bolivian minister of foreign affairs

The flow of water is not likely to be interrupted, but a start of negotiations is likely to happen for the payment to Bolivia of the excess water channelled to Chile through the artificially built channel. 

A former Bolivian diplomat remarked, “Internal tensions within Bolivia could be exacerbated if the court recognises Chile’s claim. Opposition lawmakers could push for a strong diplomatic response. However, since both parties agree that it is a transboundary aquifer, they should sit down to negotiate the modalities of a reasonable and equitable use of the waters.”

“…since both parties agree that it is a transboundary aquifer, they should sit down to negotiate the modalities of a reasonable and equitable use of the waters.”

A former Bolivian diplomat

An important aspect of the Bolivian claim, to the effect that Chile has diverted the waters of the Silala, is that Bolivia never tried to present Chile with serious scientific studies on the basis of which the two parties would have been able to initiate a fruitful dialogue. That changes this week.  

The judgment regarding the legal characterisation of the Silala case will have future effects for other cases of transboundary waters shared in the region, especially with regard to the distinction of artificial waters, groundwaters and surface waters, and the possibility of economic compensation for unilateral use. 

The clarification of how the reasonable and equitable use of these waters should be negotiated in a way that is compatible with the protection of wetlands and the ecosystem of the area where the springs originate is considered of paramount importance give the environmental importance of the region.  

Instead of discussing the use of a minimum fraction of the waters of the Silala, “Chile and Bolivia could think big and sustainably develop the entire water basin that runs the length of the Andean border”, the diplomat added. More than 90% of the water in that Andean basin runs from Chile to Bolivia and most of it is consumed without much economic or social utility. Whatever the legal outcome – focus should now be on better water utilisation for the communities – Chilean and Bolivian – that depend on it. 

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