Even in the 21st century, water can still provoke a diplomatic spat.
Ownership of the Silala River, located in the Andes on the border between Bolivia and Chile, has been disputed for the past century. According to the Bolivians, Chile is using water from the river illegally without paying, whereas Chile maintains that rights to the river are controlled by no one country.
Although the source of the river is in Bolivia, both countries have drawn a supply from the water there since at least 1908. It was then that Bolivia granted a permit to a Chilean railway company, who said they needed to use the water for locomotives. This 99 year long agreement was revoked by the Bolivian government in 1997.
The diplomatic row intensified further when the Bolivian President asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to recognise Chile’s ‘historic debt’ for using water from the river for more than 100 years. The Bolivian Foreign Minister, David Choquehuanca, also claimed the Chilean government has allowed mining companies and other private industries in the area to use the Silala as their water supply.
Chile says that Bolivia is asserting a right to the river for purely political gain. Chilean Foreign Affairs Minister Heraldo Muñoz showed the court a map printed in the Treaty of Piece and Friendship signed between the two countries in 1904, which he claimed proved that the Silala had been established as an international waterway.
In an effort to end the impasse, the Bolivian government has now proposed the formation of a commission by both countries to enable direct bilateral discussions on usage and control of the river, including ‘technical and scientific concepts’.
Other recent attempts to reach a compromise have fallen through, including talks in 2009 – which despite the agreement of 17 terms collapsed after a number of regional Bolivian petitions demanded that Chile pay its perceived debt for using water from the river over the past 100 years.
While this claim to debt is maintained, any full compromise will be complex to reach.