A multi-sectoral process led by utility regulator SISS over the past two years has resulted in an ambitious urban water agenda to guide Chile through to 2030. By Víctor Gálvez and Ignacio Ossa.
Chile is entering what promises to be an important phase in the transformation of its water management. The country’s urban water utilities regulator, Superintendence of Sanitary Services (SISS), has defined a long-term plan built around 12 projects that will shape progress to 2030, the target deadline also of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The country has delivered significant change in the past. In the 1990s, drinking water and sanitation services in Chile were provided by the Government. This period saw a high level of access to potable water in urban areas, but a very low wastewater treatment coverage. Consequently, Chile began to discuss the privatisation of water utilities with the aim of securing investment to allow increased access to sanitation and wastewater treatment. As a result, private utilities began to take over the operation of urban water services, which in turn led to a significant leap in wastewater treatment coverage. This process came with a growth in water tariffs, in order to recover the investment costs and generate a profit for the water utilities.
Need for long-term thinking
The high levels of coverage achieved by Chile marked the country out as an interesting case study regarding the development of water and sanitation in Latin America, recognising it not only for the access to water services achieved, but also as one of the few countries where it is possible to drink water safely from the tap.
Despite this success, Chilean water utilities still have pending challenges and are also subject to different pressures that are forcing them to think in the long term. For instance, Chile projects a growth in water demand of 10% in all sectors by 20401, including demand for human consumption. At the same time, there are currently more than one million people who do not have access to water and sanitation, mainly in rural and informal urban areas. In this context, Chile leads the ‘high risk’ index of water stress in the world2 and is among the countries more likely to face a water supply decrease from the combined effects of rising temperatures in critical regions and shifting precipitation patterns3. Indeed, Chile projects a decrease of up to 30% in rainfall in some regions of the country and is among the countries that will be most affected by climate change4.
Furthermore, Chile faces a high exposure to natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, drought, forest wildfires, tsunamis, flooding, and mudslides. It ranked 28th in the 2018 World Risk Index5, reflecting pressure not only on water availability, but also on infrastructure provision, protection of water resources, and protection of the population.
These concerns are very real: Chile is facing what is probably the worst drought in its history – lasting more than 10 years and extending to more than 75% of the country’s territory. Recently, the president announced an investment of US$5 billion to combat this national water crisis.
Nowadays, 90% of the Chilean population lives in cities. Urban water utilities have shown there is a necessity to improve internal management and transition to a water sensitive city approach. For example, non-revenue water is estimated at 32%, there are almost no cases of water reuse, and sanitation and drainage function completely separately, losing opportunities for multi-functional infrastructure, end-use efficiency and urban pollution management. Additionally, utilities experience challenging episodes of water outages that have affected the quality of water service they provide, compromising their trust and credibility with a population that is increasingly empowered.
Development of a vision and goals
For all these reasons, SISS decided to initiate a participatory process in 2017 to define a long-term vision for 2030 through a bottom-up approach. Superintendent Jorge Rivas said: “We want to build a multi-sectoral agenda that allows us to define a road map and, in this way, see how we are going to move the next 11 years in the development of the water and sanitation sector.” Since Chile has 43 institutions within the public sector related to water6 and 15 authorities involved in water policy making at central government level7, a collaborative process is nothing short of a necessity.
Construction of a vision and goals was therefore a challenging and laborious process that lasted two years and was developed in three stages, including 12 workshops across the whole country and the participation of more than 600 representatives of the private and public sectors, academia and civil society. This process also incorporated a large round of interviews with water experts and several meetings with the SISS team. As a result, eight main challenges were defined, grouped into three strategic axes – citizenship, climate change and efficient use of water resources, and city and territory.
Then, in order to respond to these challenges, SISS announced in 2019 the creation of the 2030 Water and Sanitation Agenda during a seminar that aimed to present a summary of the previous two years of participation and was attended by more than 400 people.
The Agenda represents the long-term plan of SISS. Based on its own role and capacity, it aims to proactively combat the challenges of the water sector in Chile through the projects, promoting a participatory approach, and defining clear goals and indicators for each project.
Strategic plan and collaborative planning for 12 projects
A strategic plan was first defined to provide a general framework for the management of the 12 projects. This strategic plan considers international experiences for water management, and good practices and principles of integrated water resources management, such as stakeholder engagement, and transparency. For example, the application of the ‘IWA Action Agenda for Basin- Connected Cities’8 will be explicitly promoted for the projects, specifically the ‘Drivers for Action’, ‘Pathways to Action’ and the ‘Foundations for Action’ in the IWA agenda document. In other words, the strategic plan provides a framework that includes governance for stakeholders and institutions to achieve a joint vision together, understanding of their roles and capacities, and the use of planning and implementation tools including financial mechanisms, collaboration between stakeholders, and monitoring and evaluation processes.
To do this, each project has its own work plan, including indicators and goals that seek the achievement of the vision. It is important to note that those indicators and goals were also designed in a collaborative process that included several meetings between stakeholders from all sectors, round tables, etc. Furthermore, the work plans consider not only the vision already developed, but also the inclusion of UN Sustainable Development Goals and country priorities, and so on.
Finally, SISS used a legal resolution to start a Steering Committee and a Consultative Council exclusively for this agenda, aiming to guarantee its implementation over time and across possible changes of authorities. The Steering Committee has the role of annually analysing the budget of the agenda and determining how its actions can impact water tariffs. Meanwhile, the Consultative Council brings together representatives of the private sector, public sector, organised civil society and academia, to provide advice on implementation, define stakeholder priorities, contribute to future actions, and any other issue that needs to be addressed.
The water sector in Chile faces a huge challenge for the coming years in what is an unfavourable social, environmental and economic climate. That means one of the most important goals of this agenda at this initial stage is to implement visible actions that have a real impact on people’s lives in a changing and highly fragmented scenario.
1 Water demand projections www.dga.cl/Estudios/04%20Resumen%20Ejecutivo/Resumen%20Ejecutivo.pdf
2 National Water Stress Ranking: www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress
3 Projected Stress Country Rankings: www.wri.org/publication/aqueduct-projected-water-stress-country-rankings
4 Global Climate Risk Index 2019: www.germanwatch.org/en/16046
5 World Risk Index: www.weltrisikobericht.de/english-2/
6 Chile – Diagnóstico de la gestión de los recursos hídricos (Spanish) http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/452181468216298391/Chile-Diagn-243-stico-de-la-gesti-243-n-de-los-recursos-h-237-dricos
7 OECD Water Governance Survey (2010)
Project descriptions, indicators, goals, report cards and other information can be found at: https://sectorsanitario2030.cl
Action to progress agenda
Ongoing activities around Chile’s 2030 Water and Sanitation Agenda have included a seminar in December for SISS to present the work plans of the agenda, its goals, indicators and progress to date. This drew together organisations, water professionals, government ministers, national speakers sharing local experiences, and international speakers from organisations such as Australia’s CRC for Water Sensitive Cities sharing established practices that could potentially be incorporated into the agenda.
The event also provided an opportunity to progress endorsement by SISS of the “IWA Principles for Water-Wise Cities”. With this, SISS aims to help mobilise stakeholders and promote collaborative urban water management across the 2030 Water and Sanitation Agenda.
The role of urban water utility regulator SISS
- Define the water tariff of urban water utilities
- Provide urban water utility concessions and approve their infrastructure long-term plan
- Supervise the quality of service of urban water utilities and initiate the process for fines after detecting breaches
- Supervise industrial discharges to public sewer networks
As a regulator, SISS also participates in the definition of standards and periodically disseminates reports related to the water and sanitation sector.