Desalination and displacements: Technological fixes to hydrosocial conflict in Chile's mining regions

Authors: Scott Odell*, Georgetown University, Center for Latin American Studies
Topics: Development, Natural Resources, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: Climate change, extractive industries, water, Latin America, Chile
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 49
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This article examines the causes and effects of stakeholders’ decision to turn to desalination operations to address hydrosocial concerns in mining regions of Chile. It begins by reviewing relevant literature on technology as a socio-environmental fix, as well as the status of desalination operations in Chile and globally. Next, it summarizes evidence gained from fieldwork on the status of desalination in Chile overall, and in three case study sites: the Escondida and Pelambres mines, which are both employing desalination to resolve concerns over water, and the Andina mine, which is not. Evidence indicates that desalination is expanding rapidly in Chile as a response to water scarcity and social protest. This has eased tensions with and brought benefits to highland communities, but may cause new socio-environmental harms in coastal regions, contributing to dynamics of "hydrosocial displacements" that tend to transfer hydrosocial harms downstream and to more vulnerable communities. Moreover, in general, the addition of seawater supplies to mining operations is not expected to reduce freshwater use overall in Chile, but rather, permit an expansion of mining production. Thus, analysis of desalination in mining operations suggests that technology cannot fully resolve socio-environmental conflict without addressing underlying political and economic structures that cause the need for them in the first place.

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