Chile, waiting for a tragedy – Energy Magazine







In the midst of the growing citizen polarization due to the exit plebiscite, a disconcerting fact made headlines in the media and nobody said anything. Chile’s mining production fell 7.2% in March. The reason? The lack of water.

By Marina Parisi, Energy Magazine

Santiago de Chile.- This was reported by the INE (National Institute of Statistics) detailing that Los Pelambres (owned by Antofagasta Minerals), was one of the most affected mining companies. Its copper production fell 24.2% during the first quarter of the year, compared to the same period in 2021.

From Los Pelambres they came out to explain that the setback was due to the severe drought affecting northern Chile, where the deposit is located (Comuna de Salamanca, Coquimbo Region).

However, the mining company knew that the water shortage in the region would reach this critical point. So it prepared in advance, investing in its own seawater desalination plant, which will start operations in the second half of this year.

Eight floors are not enough!

All in all, it is surprising that the lack of water is now hampering mining activity, when the industry has been a pioneer in the implementation of desalination complexes. This means that the eight desalination plants that the sector currently has, along with its three seawater pumping systems, are no longer enough to process copper.

But mining has an ace up its sleeve: between now and 2028 it will start up another 15 new desalination complexes.

In the midst of an unprecedented water crisis, we see how the mining industry is saved thanks to desalination. What is the government waiting for to deliver desalinated water to the rest of the country?

expensive, expensive, expensive

In answering this question, Alfredo Moreno, former Minister of Public Works, stated in June of last year that “desalination is a great solution for the north or center-north of Chile, and in particular, for the coastal zone. But for the Metropolitan Region it is still too expensive a solution”.

Representatives of the sanitation industry share the same opinion and propose reusing treated wastewater to supply the central zone of the country. The truth is that this “reuse” would only serve to irrigate green areas, without solving the demand for water for human consumption.

How much does a desalination plant cost to cover the requirements of a third of the Metropolitan Region? “About US$2,500 million,” says Carlos Foxley, President of the Chilean Desalination Association (ACADES). “This is equivalent to two subway lines or one month of IFE Universal.”

Now, another US$2,000 million must be added to said budget, explains the executive, because it must be invested in pipes to transport desalinated water from Valparaíso to the Metropolitan Region. “But this can and should be done,” Foxley stresses.

Any desalination project that starts now will only have results in seven or eight more years, says the manager. “I did not explain to myself why this is not being done now. We’re going to have a really bad time.”

Green energies reduce costs

If renewable energies were incorporated into the desalination process, the costs would be much more competitive. Producing a cubic meter of desalinated water using fossil fuels today costs around US$0.80-US$1.20. These levels could drop to US$0.50 and even less if operating with green energies.

That pumping the desalinated water from the plant to the city further catapults costs… another redundant argument put forward by the authority. Well, the solution lies in forming public-private alliances, providing subsidies and other incentives, in addition to holding bids.

Just as the government has orchestrated two tenders for the deployment of the 5G network in Chile, and that has contributed nothing to date in digitizing our increasingly expensive modern life at the speed of light, it could well put out to tender the construction of plants desalination plants to supply the Metropolitan Region and the rest of the country.

lack of common sense

So far, the government’s indolence in the face of a crisis that has not yet shown its darkest side is evident. Apparently when we see how people and animals die en masse due to lack of water, only then will the authority use common sense. Just as it happened in London, with the fatal Great Smog of December 1952.

This was the worst air pollution disaster in UK history. Known as the Great Smog of London, that dense, yellow and toxic mass killed more than 12,000 people, especially children and the elderly, in just weeks and months. Another 120,000 people had to be hospitalized.

The main cause of the tragedy was the excessive burning of coal, which colluded with the bad weather in London that season.

What happened was that the sulfur dioxide released from burning coal ended up producing sulfuric acid, due to chemical reactions with the fog. This adhered to the lungs of thousands of Londoners, who died intoxicated.

Death, in most cases, was caused by problems in the upper respiratory tract obstructed by secretions, in addition to infections in the respiratory tract, causing hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the brain).

As of this catastrophe, many things changed in terms of environmental legislation in the United Kingdom, being the beginning of a great environmental movement in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile in Chile, today the priority of the government is to duly inform about the next constitutional plebiscite. So we are, waiting for a tragedy, that once it happens, the authority will regret not having invested in a timely solution… even if it were “too expensive”.

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