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Insights into Chile’s Water Scarcity – Interview with Dr. Giancarlo Barassi

Chile has faced a decade-long drought that has impacted local communities and whole industries alike. Over 400,000 people are receiving water deliveries from the government, mainly in rural communities where groundwater has run dry. Whole lakes in the central region of Chile which once were dotted with recreational boats are now completely dry as well.

The drought has had a severe impact on agriculture, the largest users of water in the country. In August 2021, an agricultural emergency was declared by the President for Coquimbo, Valparaiso, O’Higgins, and Maule cities. An emergency fund of over US$10 million was created for farmers.   

Hydroelectric energy which makes up 30% of the energy generated in the country has been affected and reservoirs are at historic lows. Hydroelectric generation in 2021 has been 16.3% lower than that of 2019. This year the country delayed retiring a coal-fired plant to cover the hydroelectric deficit.

Although the mining industry only uses 9% of the countries water, most operations are located in Northern Chile where water is the scarcest. BHP’s Cerro Colorado copper mine was ordered in September of last year to stop pumping water from their aquifers for 90 days. Antofagasta Minerals in 2021 cut its copper production target for the year due to the water shortage as it waits for its desalination plant to start operating in 2022.

We interviewed Dr. Giancarlo Barassi, a Chilean Chemist, who has dedicated his career to the desalination and water reuse markets. He is currently a board member of the Caribbean Desalination Association and the International Desalination Association (liaison director to CaribDA) for the 2022-2024 term. Dr. Giancarlo Barrasi provides us insight into the Chilean water industry, what technologies are being implemented, and suggestions of how foreign providers can ensure they are successful when introducing new technologies. 

Ax Legal – Can you provide as an overview of your professional background and your experience? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barrasi – After finishing my PhD in Chemistry in New Zealand, I returned to Chile and started my own company H2OPRO where I got involved selling projects and equipment for Culligan, Voltea, and FEDCO in Chile and Peru. With hands-on experience in design, commissioning and troubleshooting of RO plants for Industrial, Agriculture and Hemodialysis applications. I joined the pump and energy recovery device manufacturer, FEDCO, in September 2017, where I worked in Sales and Business Development in the Western Hemisphere until 2021, promoting high recovery and brine mining in SWRO. During this time, I was appointed the co-chair of the Young Leaders Program at the International Desalination Association for the 2019-2022 term where I promoted benefits to young professionals in the desalination industry. In 2022, I joined Aquatech International LLC, as the Desalination and Reuse Market Manager. I now oversee all Desalination and Reuse projects globally. I am currently a board member of the Caribbean Desalination Association and the International Desalination Association (liaison director to CaribDA) for the 2022-2024 term.

Ax Legal – What are the water challenges that Chile face? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi –  Chile is suffering from an unprecedented drought and the infrastructure in Central and Northern Chile does not meet the current and future industrial and population demand for water. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of coordination across all sectors to have a complete strategy that involves water management techniques along with the implementation of reuse and desal.

Additionally, the legal framework for desalination projects is not clear, generating a fuzzy environment for developers on how their projects are going be assessed by the authorities and stakeholders. For example, there is no Chilean standard for brine discharge from a desalination facility into the ocean. Some try to cite the DS90, but it is not applicable to desalination plants.

Ax Legal – How can those challenges be managed? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi –  The challenges of water scarcity that Chile is facing can be managed by empowering one of the ministries involved in water related matters, enabling them to take ownership of the challenge, and lead the development of a strategy. It is critical there is a ministry that is clearly responsible for this important issue. 

Ax Legal – What is the average time for desalination plants to be approved and built? What is the biggest challenge for desal? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi – From conception to commissioning it could take 5 to 7 years. The biggest challenge is the non-existent legal framework specific to desalination facilities and the misinformation generated by some stakeholders on the negative impacts of desalination and water rights.

Ax Legal – Do you see any future changes or developments to how desal could be more efficient? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi – Brine mining looks like an interesting paradigm shift. This concept involves producing high purity commercial salts like sodium chloride, magnesium hydroxide, and calcium carbonate within other compounds from the brine. The benefits are zero brine discharge into the environment and the possibility to fully subsidize the cost of water due to the high value of the salts being produced. For example, Saudi Arabia through SWCC and DTRI are pursuing this initiative. Several companies have expressed their interest to execute the project.

Ax Legal – The low hanging fruit is reusing water. Can you give some examples of where this would be beneficial and how it would work? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi – Chile currently discharges 40 m3/s through submarine emissaries into the ocean. Just the water being discharged in front of the coast of Viña del Mar, if treated, could secure water for the population for Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Treated water could be pumped to Peñuelas Lake to be stored. The challenge is the interpretation of the law, some lawyers believe that the water is owned by the sanitation companies (e.g. Econnsa). Even if that was the case, we could still acquire the m3 of untreated waste water to further process it through a reuse facility and produce drinking water at a competitive price.

Ax Legal –  How can Chile become a hydrogen leader given that water is a major input?

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi – Two routes. First, since the green hydrogen projects are being backed by the government, the desal plant associated to it is going to be approved without many hiccups. Second possible outcome, the desal facility needed for hydrogen facilities are small when compared to other facilities currently in operation, hence you could either use zero liquid discharge or the perceived environmental impact will be less due to the size.

Ax Legal – What type of technologies do you think would be beneficial in Chile?

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi –  Probably Brine mining, the ability to produce high purirty sodium chloride to supply the chlor alkali industry in South America could be interesting. Also Chile has a mining legacy, hence, mining for salts from the sea is in line with the country’s culture.

Ax Legal – What can foreign companies do better when introducing and deploying new technologies to Chile?

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi –  Educating people and fighting misinformation. The key to the success is relationship building. This will eventually translate into trust.

Ax Legal – Do you have any tips or advice for foreign companies who are introducing technology or solutions? 

Dr. Giancarlo Barassi –  Get involved with all the stakeholders, invest in a good communication campaigns. It is all about transparency. The lack of communication when developing a project may lead to people believe that important decisions are being taken behind their backs which could have a negative impact on their daily lives.

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