SANTIAGO (Reuters) – On Chilean water regulator Oscar Cristi’s desk, a small white espresso cup teeters atop piles of documents and loose folders that appear on the point of collapse, perhaps an apt metaphor for the growing water crisis in parts of the Andean country.
Sitting in his eighth-floor office adjacent the presidential palace, Cristi, a PhD economist, lays out a map of Chile showing key watersheds for mining. Swaths of the mineral-rich north are colored blue, denoting areas where aquifers are over-exploited. Soon, if Cristi gets his way, they will be red, meaning new water rights will be banned.
Reams of water rights were granted by Chilean governments over decades with little consideration for their cumulative impact as miners scrambled to stake claims on the small pockets of water available in the salt flats of the Salar de Atacama.
The Salar sits in the world’s driest desert. The water trapped beneath the salt pan feeds the world’s biggest copper mine and holds in suspension more than one-third of the world’s current supply of lithium, the ultra-light metal used in electric car batteries, mobile phones and lap-tops.
With demand for water growing in a region economically vital to the country, Cristi is now taking steps to rein in usage. But there is a problem. No one really knows how much water is there. Cristi said Chilean development agency Corfo, which helps oversee lithium extraction in the Salar, hopes to provide a better picture in a study due in December.