Saturday, February 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

UN high court tells Chile, Bolivia to cooperate in water dispute

The court held the Silala River is governed by international law, a point no longer disputed by Bolivia in the latest of a series of court battles between the Latin American neighbors over water rights.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — There was little left for the United Nations' top court to decide on by the time it issued a ruling Thursday in a disagreement over access to a South American cross-border waterway, as Chile and Bolivia had mostly resolved the dispute diplomatically. 

The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, told the pair to cooperate in managing the Silala River, a 5.3-mile body of water that originates in Bolivia and runs through Chile, but otherwise only ruled that the parties were no longer at odds. 

Chile, which filed a complaint with The Hague-based court in 2016, claims the Silala is an international waterway and is therefore governed by a 1997 U.N. convention on water rights, which would force both countries to share the water equally. 

Bolivia argues the river isn’t an international watercourse at all but rather a series of underground springs forced into the open by Chilean construction. Santiago said it was merely taking precautions to ensure insect control in the region but La Paz accused its neighbor of intentionally drawing in water to create a waterway that would rise to meet the international standard. 

“The court is not called upon to give a decision,” ICJ President Joan Donoghue said in reading the ruling before The Hague-based court, noting that Bolivia now agrees the river qualifies as an international waterway. 

Hearings dragged on for two weeks in April, as both sides presented water experts who were questioned by opposing counsel and judges. Experts presented models of the region, including hundreds of tests of the water flow and water depth taken over the last 20 years. 

Chile saw Thursday’s ruling as a victory.

“What we saw here is that Bolivia …in the end accepted that this is a shared watercourse. The court is now only restating the fact that Bolivia has accepted all that Chile came for,” Ximena Fuentes, Chile’s vice minister for foreign affairs, told reporters from the steps of the The Hague's Peace Palace after the hearing.

Bolivia did not comment. 

The ruling advised the two countries to cooperate, per international regulations.

"The shared resource at issue can only be protected through close and continuous cooperation," Donoghue said.

In 1908, Bolivia gave permission to the Chilean Antofagasta-Bolivian Railway Company to use the waters of the Silala to power steam engines. But in 1997, amid worsening relations, La Paz revoked the agreement and demanded Santiago pay not only for its water usage going forward, but also retroactive compensation, setting off a series of legal disputes over the area. 

The neighbors haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1978. Bolivia lost its only sea access to Chile in the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific, causing bitter relations between the two Latin American countries.

In 2018, the court rejected a claim by Bolivia that Chile must allow it access to the Pacific Ocean. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...