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Optimisation of Irrigation in Central Chile

by: Pablo Bustamante, SPI

Why should I read this document? 


This article provides a summary of the status quo of the agricultural sector in Chile, one of the critical pillars of the Chilean economy. The region has faced heavy droughts in the past 10 years, with natural disasters intensifying over the years. This has had an increasingly adverse effect on agricultural production due to shortages in the water supply.

The following levels outline the various plans and projects, driven by the national government, to support the creation or import of new technologies to decrease the amount of water used for irrigation. The optimisation of water used in agriculture is of critical importance to Chile, as even short-term predictions based on climate change projections outline a drastic diminution in precipitation in Central Chile, the agricultural basin of the country.

This document on Optimisation of Irrigation in Central Chile is aimed at:

  • EU investors who are willing to network, improve, and expand upon their knowledge on the irrigation infrastructure in Chile and similar countries

  • Policymakers working to improve knowledge or legislation related to irrigation 

  • EU SMEs with an interest in irrigation and in making lasting connections and entering the market.

The following levels will provide a deeper insight into Chile’s irrigation infrastrucure and cover some of the physical and governance aspects of Chilean irrigation, as well as ways in which European SMEs can get involved.




The Oficina de Estudios y Political Agrarian(ODEPA) reports that the agricultural production represents 7.3% of the national GDP, but agriculture is even more important in some regions. For example, in the O´Higgins region agriculture represented 14.9% of GDP, and in the Maule region the agricultural production reached 13.9%. Both of these areas are located in Central Chile, the most arable region of the country,with a suitable climate for growing Mediterranean products including grapes, cereals, and fruits. The local production is growing annually and “Desafio 2030”, a plan developed by ODEPA, projects continuous increase in harvests, leading to greater production outputs in the area. The Chilean government is aiming to increase exports and open new markets for the growing Chilean products, whilst stimulating increases in consumption1

Despite the Government's plans to expand agriculture production, Chile now faces a significant problem with heavy droughts hitting the country’s central region in the past decade. Projections indicate the deterioration of the drought situation in the near future, with an investigation by the Centre for Climate and Resilience Research (CR2) predicting an expansion of the Atacama Desert to the south, reducing the available arable land. This poses a significant problem not only for agricultural production, but also for water availability for human consumption. For example, in Petorca city, located in the Valparaiso region, the water supply is proving to be insufficient for agriculture which is crucial to the local economy, however this also affects the inhabitants who live with an already limited water supply due to the dry weather in summer.

The Chilean Government has addressed the drought crisis with the “Plan Sequia” that takes into account every area affected by the water shortage, paying special attention to two main areas:

  1. To maintain the water supply for human consumption

  2. To rectify and modernize irrigation in agriculture to decrease water consumption

The Chilean Government and institutions collaborating on the drought plan are seeking innovation, financing new ideas and projects, and discussing water shortages and a future with a water-scarce Central Chile.


A report from “Plan Sequia” discovered that the situation was more complicated than initially thought. Currently, the northern and southern zones of Central Chile have rainfall deficits between 60 and 80% compared to the historical average. To make matters worse, snow accumulation in the region has deficits of over 85% and the country’s main water reservoirs are only at 34% of capacity.

Due to this situation, the Chilean Ministry of Public Works has signed 19 water shortage decrees affecting 135 municipalities across six regions. This has allowed the government to redistribute rivers to prioritise human consumption, authorising the extraction of water without following the respective procedures, for the duration of the emergency situation.

An agricultural emergency has also been declared in the regions of Coquimbo, Valparaiso, O’Higgins, Maule, and Los Lagos. The agricultural emergency has also been declared in 20 severely affected districts in the Metropolitan region.


The Government’s efforts


The National Government worked on a water plan and strategy through the National Water Roundtable, which identified three strategic pillars:

  1. The strategic plans for the Copiapo, Huasco, Elqui, Limari, Choapa, Quilimari, La Ligua, Petorca, Aconcagua, and Maule basins in 2021.

  2. Ensure water quality and protect ecosystems. Since 2018, 96 aquifers have been declared as areas of “prohibition of delivery of water rights”. Combined with the restriction of granting, a total of 189, approximately half of the country’s aquifers are now prohibited from exploitation.

  3. Modernization of the legal and institutional framework, with the New Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources, and the Reform of the Water Code.

Irrigation has been identified as one of the most important agricultural areas for investments, innovation, and progress. A plan to build 26 reservoirs in the next four years4 is already underway. This includes the construction of the Valle Hermoso reservoir in Coquimbo in 2019, with a capacity of 20 cubic hectometres (hm3)serving 1,500 hectares of land. The structure of the Chironta reservoir in Arica will be completed this year, with a planned capacity of 17 hm3, benefitting 2,384 hectares of land. The Punilla reservoir is yet another major example of the plan in action, with a capacity of 540 hm3, irrigating 60,000 hectares of land in the localities of San Carlos, Chillan, Niquen, San Nicolas, Coihueco, and potentially, San Fabian.

The reservoir construction project has initially been carried out in zones with a greater demand for water which were in danger of not having access to water irrigation in the coming years.

Another project to extend Irrigation Law 18,450 for 12 years is currently in discussion. This law has allowed essential investments into the agricultural sector. A Special Drought Fund included in the law will allow investments in excess of $110 million per year in 2021 and 2022. A strategic research fund on droughts will also provide over $60 million to use research, studies, and technological solutions to design public policies and regulations that address water shortages.

How can European companies get involved in the situation?


The situation regarding water shortages, and the Chilean Government’s efforts to address it, have opened up areas for foreign investors and projects in Chile’s irrigation and agricultural sectors. In fact, there are already successful European-founded projects related to the water shortage and similar issues in the region.

EUROCLIMA+ is the EU’s flagship program on environmental sustainability and climate change within Latin America. It aims to reduce the impact of climate change and its effects in Latin America by promoting climate change mitigation and adaptation, resilience, and investment6. This cooperation focused program is composed of five international agencies, including the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). The program initiative, focused on and promoted in Chile, corresponds to the project “Disaster risk management and reduction: droughts and floods”5. EUROCLIMA+ also supported the creation of “Plan Sequia”, an investigation of water shortages in the region, and new legislation regarding climate change impulse by Chile, which works in coordination with various actors from  local to national scales.

A well established and successful European initiative indicates that the government is open to develop a link between Chile and Europe’s private sector through investment and collaboration. The numerous initiatives generated by the state to protect the agriculture sector and the water supply will create many opportunities for serious work in the sector. It is likely that that these projects will also require the support of other sectors’ knowledge and technology. Technological and innovative solutions to the irrigation and water supply problems are crucial to Chile’s future and European companies will find a plethora of opportunities to contribute to solving the problems.









Last updated: 07.04.2022 - 11:49
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