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Chile and Bolivia wrap World Court hearings in river dispute

The South American neighbors have been at odds for years over the regionally important Silala River, which flows through one of the driest places in the world, the Atacama Desert.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Chile had the final word on Thursday in its case against Bolivia, closing two weeks of hearings before the United Nations’ top court over access to a cross-border waterway. 

Chile wants the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, to declare the Silala River, a 5.3-mile watercourse that originates in Bolivia and runs through Chile, an international waterway. Such an order which would give Santiago access to the river and force the neighboring countries, which cut off diplomatic ties with each other decades ago, to work together on related projects. 

The court cannot treat Chile and Bolivia “as if they were two children in a playground, who just need to be told that they must cooperate,” Chile's lawyer Samuel Wordsworth told The Hague-based court earlier this week.

In 1997, amid worsening relations, the Bolivian government in La Paz revoked a 1908 agreement with the Chilean Antofagasta-Bolivian Railway Company to use the waters of the Silala to power steam engines and demanded Chile pay not only for its water usage going forward, but also provide retroactive compensation, setting off a series of legal disputes over the area. The river flows through the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world.

Hearings dragged on for two weeks before The Hague-based World Court, as both sides presented water experts who were questioned by opposing counsel and judges. Chile, which filed the case at issue in 2016, claims the Silala is an international waterway, which by virtual of flowing across the border must be shared. Bolivia argues it isn’t a river at all, but a series of ground-fed springs which have been turned into a river by Chilean construction. 

“Bolivia, as a good neighbor, has always tolerated Chile’s use of the enhanced flow generated by the artificial canalization installed in Bolivia’s territory, despite the fact that there is no concession or international agreement with Chile that generates any benefit for Bolivia,” Roberto Calzadilla Sarmiento, the Bolivian ambassador to the Netherlands, told the court in his closing statements. 

Experts presented models of the region, including hundreds of tests of the water flow and water depth taken over the last 20 years. Although the evidence was gathered in an effort to bolster each side’s case, the data may move a diplomatic solution forward.

"Such studies have led to technical points of agreement that have brought the parties closer regarding the status of the Silala waters as an international watercourse,” Calzadilla Sarmiento said. 

But in Chile’s closing statements on Thursday, the country's vice minister for foreign affairs, Ximean Fuentes, described Bolivia as “steadily retreating from its written arguments,” which she said furthered Santiago’s desire for a ruling from the court. 

Prior to the War of the Pacific, a 19th-century conflict between Bolivia, Chile and Peru, the region was within Bolivia’s borders. But Santiago was victorious in that conflict.

Chile took possession of Bolivia’s only coastal area, cutting La Paz off from the Pacific Ocean and causing bitter relations between the South American countries. The neighbors haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1978.

It isn’t the first time the countries have argued over water rights before the court. Landlocked Bolivia hauled Santiago before World Court in 2013, arguing that Chile should give it access to the Pacific Ocean. However, the judges sided with the coastal country, concluding in 2018 that it was “not legally obligated to negotiate such a move.” 

The court could take years to issue a final ruling in the case brought by Chile. 

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