Chilean Company Wants to Sell Glacier Water to Middle East

PHOTO: The Jorge Montt Glacier in Chiles Patagonia. A company called Waters of Patagonia, wants to take water that melts from this glacier and sell it to the Middle East, in what has become a controversial initiative.Kyle Hammons/Getty Images
The Jorge Montt Glacier in Chile's Patagonia. A company called Waters of Patagonia, wants to take water that melts from this glacier and sell it to the Middle East, in what has become a controversial initiative.

Chile is a country of environmental extremes. The northern third of this narrow but extremely long nation contains rich copper mines and some of the driest deserts in the world. The sparsely populated southern tip of Chile, which is some 2,500 miles away from the northern deserts, is packed with fjords and glaciers. As global warming prompts glaciers to melt at faster rates this is also becoming one of the world's most water-rich areas.

Such geographical challenges have always made it difficult for Chile to use its water efficiently and to take it where it is most needed. This is why plans to capture melting glacier water and sell it to far away Middle Eastern nations have caused somewhat of a scandal in the South American country.

The information first emerged in a newspaper from Qatar, which talked about a deal in which Chile would put glacier water in large containers, and ship it to the desert kingdom.

Chilean officials immediately denied any involvement in this alleged plan, explaining that the water deal was proposed to Qatar by a "small private company" from Chile.

The company that wants to sell the glacier water is called Waters of Patagonia, the Chilean press reported. And it is also discussing a deal to sell water to Qatar's southern neighbor, the United Arab Emirates.

This idea did not go down well with environmental groups who are concerned that such deals could have a negative impact on one of the world's most important fresh water reserves.

"We should first look at the necessities and problems that our country faces before we start thinking about selling water to the United Arab Emirates," said Juan Pablo Orrego, president of Ecosistemas, a Chilean NGO that focuses on environmental issues, to a local radio station. "I think it's a totally scandalous and unacceptable concept, which underscores the lack of protection of Chile's hydrological resources."

Waters of Patagonia received the rights to collect the melted water of a part of Jorge Montt glacier, one of the country's largest ice fields, in 2005. But so far the company has not been involved in any major water shipments.

The company says that its procedures are eco-friendly, as it is merely capturing fresh water that melts from the glacier before it is lost into the ocean.

Waters of Patagonia also says that most of its business plans involve shipping water to Chile's drought-stricken Northern provinces. They do this by placing glacial water in giant floating containers, which are pulled across the ocean by tugboats.

"Chile is always our priority," said Ian Szydlowski, the owner of Waters of Patagonia. "We don't touch the ice, and we didn't take the area from the Mapuche [indians], from miners or farmers."

Szydlowski added that for several years his company has been working to solve Chile's water problems. He argues that an initiative to provide water to 83 percent of one of Chile's northern provinces is well under way.

Environmentalists in Chile, however, argue that water problems are not just solved by shipping the stuff from one place to another.

According to Pablo Orrego, from Ecosistemas, water problems in the north are not necessarily caused by the lack of rain or lack of rivers. It turns out that mining companies use up a lot of water that could be used for human consumption.

Environmentalists also point out that the future of Chile's glaciers lies in a legal limbo, which could allow for more companies like Waters of Patagonia to exploit the country's pristine glaciers.

Water is considered a public good in Chile. But water laws do not specify how to regulate hydrological sources that are not in liquid form. This means that no one is certain about the specific regulations that govern the collection of melted ice water, an increasingly important resource in Chile and the rest of the world.