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Environment

U.N. water rights expert questions Chile's avocado and energy priorities

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile on Thursday faced questioning by a United Nations water rights expert who suggested the government could be placing economic development over human rights through controversial agriculture and energy projects.

Leo Heller, the UN special rapporteur on human rights to drinking water and sanitation, said he had asked the government to “clarify” its approach to the intensive cultivation of avocados in the central coastal region of Valparaiso, as well as the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project which lies southeast of the capital, Santiago.

“The Chilean Government would not be fulfilling its international human rights obligations if it prioritises economic development projects over the human rights to water and health,” he said in a statement.

“These two projects may put that supply at risk, which is particularly worrying during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Chile has been in the grip of one of the worst droughts in 60 years and last year declared a water emergency in Petorca, the center of its world-leading avocado trade.

One avocado tree uses more water per day than the 50-litre daily quota set aside for each resident, Heller said, yet the government continues to grant new water rights to agricultural companies.

The current quota for residents did not account for the frequent hand washing required to kill coronavirus, he added.

The Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project in the Andes mountains that loom over the nation’s capital generates electricity by diverting the three main tributaries of the Maipo River through some 67km of tunnels.

Heller said the project could have a negative impact on the main source of drinking water for Santiago residents, but also worsen the city’s pollution problem by damaging the Maipo River Basin “green corridor.”

Matias Asun, Greenpeace director in Chile, said the “harsh statement” was unprecedented. “This must be answered by the government,” he said.

The Chilean government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Aislinn Laing; editing by Richard Pullin

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