A typology is proposed regarding the modes of access to water for the rural population in Chile as well as four explanatory dimensions of its heterogeneity. The typology emerges from a systematic review of the literature and an analysis of quantitative data based on rural water organizations' databases. The modes of access are defined by the following five criteria: their socio-technical system, their type of management, their level of spatial action, the source of their financing, and the type of technical assistance they received. The findings dispute the systemic vision of access to water in rural areas and invite us to consider the structural heterogeneity in regulations and public policies to guarantee the human right to water.

  • There are different modes of access to water in rural Chile.

  • Access to water is not constituted by a single, functional, and homogeneous system.

  • Access to rural water via a collective network is not the most common mode of access.

  • The legal framework, inequalities, urbanization, and climate change contribute to the heterogeneity.

  • The public policies should integrate this diversity and consider the elements that create it.

Graphical Abstract

Graphical Abstract
Graphical Abstract

Chile has been experiencing a mega-drought for the last 13 years due to climate change (Garreaud et al., 2020). A reduction in rainfall and an increase in the level of temperatures and evapotranspiration have reduced the recharge of available water. River levels and water resource reserves in glaciers, groundwater, and reservoirs have decreased significantly due to overconsumption and lack of protection (Alvarez-Garreton et al., 2021). For this reason, most of the regions of Chile are experiencing difficulties in responding to the productive sectors and the human population's demand for water, generating diverse conflicts over water that question both its governance and water policies in the country.

In particular, in the last decade, Chilean rural populations have faced increasing difficulties in supplying themselves with drinking water. Since the mid-20th century, the rural population was delegated the distribution service, which characterized the institutional context. In 1964, in the context of the Alliance for Progress led by the United States, the Rural Drinking Water Program [Agua Potable Rural (APR)] was created. This program promoted the creation of Rural Drinking Water Committees and Cooperatives whose members were rural inhabitants employed in the agricultural sector and normally came from homes with the least resources. As part of the program, these members were placed in charge of administering the infrastructure provided by the State and operating the network distribution service. At the end of the 1980s, a legal vacuum arose in rural spaces due to the consecration of the privatization of drinking water and sanitation distribution services in urban spaces. These rural spaces are defined as those that have a low population density and that, therefore, are not registered in a regulatory plan for the use of land classified as urban. Since then, the Ministry of Public Works [Ministerio de Obras Públicas (MOP)] finances new drinking water systems in densely populated rural areas, but delegates technical and community support to private water companies. Thus, in less-populated rural areas, informal organizations have spontaneously formed to collectively respond to the need for access to water. In some cases, they have managed to obtain financial and technical assistance from public and private actors. Given the plurality of existing organizations and the absence of a regulatory framework, Law Number 20,998 on Rural Sanitary Services [Servicios Sanitarios Rurales (SSR)] came into effect in 2019 to regularize the sector.

Currently, it is estimated that there are 2,558 organizations in charge of the water distribution service, among which 1,961 committees and cooperatives have been created by the Rural Drinking Water Program. These organizations supply approximately 2,000,000 inhabitants: the dynamics of urban expansion and migration in the interior of the country make their identification and quantification difficult. In addition, the majority of the population does not reside in densely populated rural areas; therefore, their access depends on individual modes of access. Furthermore, there is no registry of the different formal and informal organizations in charge of the distribution service in both rural and peri-urban spaces. Therefore, there is little knowledge about the ways of supplying water to the rural population in Chile's extensive and diverse national territory. In general, investigations have focused on the Rural Drinking Water Program (Nelson-Nuñez et al., 2019; Fuster & Donoso, 2018; Delgado et al., 2020). This emphasis has led to a reductionist view on the modalities of access to water, limiting them to committees and cooperatives formalized and regulated by the Rural Drinking Water Program of the Ministry of Public Works, making informal organizations and hybrid practices invisible. For this reason, a systemic view of rural drinking water was established, which did not properly consider modalities outside the APR Program.

To help fill this gap, this article identifies and describes the different modes of access to water for domestic use in rural areas of Chile. Its objective is to propose a typology of access to rural water and propose explanatory dimensions of it. Recognizing the existing heterogeneity and the socio-environmental processes that produced them makes it possible to challenge the systemic view of access to rural water and think about the fragmentation of services as a structural phenomenon, where the responses of social actors are open-ended and flexible processes. This viewpoint invites us to think about the complementarity of the modes of access, their legal status, and the changing climatic and socio-ecosystemic conditions as part of the political actions necessary to guarantee the human right to water. Likewise, the criteria that define the typology can constitute guides to orient the elaboration of public policies adapted to local realities.

Rural water supply in Chile: a literature review

In Chile, access to drinking water in rural areas has been the subject of research with different disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological horizons. The first field of study adopts a quantitative or modeling methodological approach to study the APR Program and the organizations in charge of the drinking water service affiliated with it. The works of Fuster & Donoso (2018) and Molinos-Senante et al., (2019), which evaluate the performance of Committees and Cooperatives through statistical analysis stand out. From political science, Nelson et al., (2019) have analyzed the internal governance of organizations and the APR Program based on interviews with experts in the sector while Delgado et al., (2020) highlight the importance of adopting a multilevel perspective to analyze water governance in rural areas. Both categories of studies that focused on the APR program reveal that the fact that an organization is affiliated with the program does not guarantee a good quality distribution service since serious continuity problems have been observed as a result of a high frequency of water outages. They also show the heterogeneity in the level of performance between these organizations: in general, those with a larger number of household water connections achieve a higher performance level due to the economies of scale achieved.

The second field of study analyzes the conflicts and power relations that were created during the application of the APR Program. These studies came from political or economic anthropology, where in-depth or comparative case studies were used (Cantillana, 2018). Conflicts regarding the APR Program also crystallize at regional and national levels. Nicolas-Artero (2016) has shown how different national and regional federations criticize the pressure exerted by the State to modernize APR organizations. In this sense, there is mistrust regarding the type of advice that private sanitation companies provide, as stipulated by the General Law on Sanitary Services, which reduces the social role of organizations in the community. Finally, Oppliger et al., (2019) propose a typology of water scarcity in rural areas that reveals the multidimensionality of factors that weaken APR organizations and prevent them from guaranteeing access to water of sufficient quality.

The third field of study analyzes the formation of inequalities in access to water and the social construction of scarcity based on in-depth case studies. Research stemming from geography, and particularly, political ecology, has questioned the relationships between spatial transformations, residential diversity, and the practices of access to water of the inhabitants. Focusing their analysis in a region in southern Chile, Bravo et al., (2019) have revealed the overlapping of different supply modalities (APR organizations, private access, informal organizations) and water sources (wells, springs, rainwater, cistern truck) within the same household, especially during rain shortages. On the other hand, Lukas et al., (2020) have shown how in rural spaces undergoing urbanization on the outskirts of Santiago, real-estate companies create private sanitation companies to be able to invest in residential projects. This produces a fragmentation of services: urban neighborhoods with high-income populations are supplied by small private water sanitation companies, the population of Santiago is supplied by the formerly public company EMOS, which was privatized in 1999, and the rural area population with fewer resources is supplied by APR committees. Finally, Ojeda et al., (2020) have focused on the highly urbanized spaces of the Urban-Forest Interface Zone in the city of Valparaíso. Despite the population density, the residential spaces are not part of the regulatory plan or the sanitation companies' concession area. In response, the affected population has developed strategies to obtain water from different sources, including the construction of wells, the collection of rainwater, and the provision of water by cistern trucks.

These three fields of study reveal the diversity of water distribution and supply modalities in rural or peri-urban spaces in Chile. However, to our knowledge, there are no comprehensive studies that systematize the different forms of access to water in rural areas in Chile. Therefore, we propose a typology that collects the different modes of access to water of the rural population in the country. We expand on the social science studies on water inspired by Science and Technology Studies (Latour, 2006) that are interested in the social dimension of water networks and infrastructures (Obertreis et al., 2016). These have shown how technology, actors, and institutions are interdependent and mutually reconfigure one another, giving rise to a plurality of modes of governance of drinking water distribution services, especially in cities of countries in the south (Bakker, 2003; Jaglin, 2004). In addition, this theoretical framework allows us to capture heterogeneous access modalities in response to more institutionalist views coming from institutional actors and the literature (Fuster & Donoso, 2018; Molinos-Senante et al., 2019; Nelson-Nuñez et al., 2019; Delgado et al., 2020) that focus on formal organizations, and particularly the APR Program, leaving aside different rural modes of access.

To identify the different access modalities in rural Chile, we adopt the notion of a socio-technical system, understood as the entanglement of human actors, biophysical components, and artifacts arranged to capture, store, treat, and distribute water with the knowledge and social practices necessary for its management (Swyngedouw, 2004; Casciarri, 2013). In these socio-technical systems, the biophysical and spatial elements (water, hydrological and biological resources, topography) shape the economic and legal characteristics (e.g., infrastructure, fixed assets, contracts, and regulation) of their management. Also, these systems are shaped by the institutional device that governs them, the history of the locality, and the power relations or divergent interests among its population (Lorrain & Poupeau, 2014).

However, in the Chilean case, the notion of socio-technical system is too broad to identify and classify the different access modalities in rural areas. We propose integrating more precise criteria, such as the type of management, the source of financing, technical support, and level of action, has been necessary to identify the types of management associated with different socio-technical systems. These give rise to what we call modes of access to water. The choice of these criteria and the validation of the typology elaborated on the basis of these is established in three stages. First, the criteria were deductively constructed to describe socio-technical systems. Second, these were chosen because they constitute spheres of action of public policy and are within the agency capacity of the organizations. Finally, the criteria were validated by the key informants interviewed, who were shown the typology and whose view was corroborated by references in the literature that support its importance in water management. For example, the socio-technical system invites us to reflect on the plurality of socio-technical devices installed beyond the network (Kaika & Swyngedouw, 2000). The type of management reveals the plurality of existing management modes with which it is necessary to interact (Boelens, 2015). The level of action reveals the need to create integrated policies adapted to different scales, that go beyond just the community or neighborhood (Poupeau 2019). The source of financing indicates the context in which the organization was created and its relationship with the State. Finally, technical support reveals the level of training that the organization may have obtained (Nelson-Nuñez et al., 2019).

These criteria that define the typology make it possible to highlight the central aspects that differentiate the modalities of access to water from each other and on which the State can act. In this sense, they constitute guides to orient the direct action field of public policies in a way that is adapted to local realities. Each criterion can become an axis of action, allowing us to think of a plurality of support solutions adapted to each situation.

In this study, the research methodology used to describe the heterogeneity in the different forms of accessing water in rural areas and create the typology proposal is divided into three stages and considers both quantitative and qualitative analyses.

The first stage consisted of conducting a systematic review of the literature to collect the available evidence on access to water in rural contexts in Chile. To do this, the following four bibliographic databases were used: Web of Science, Scopus, Redalyc-Clacso, and Scielo. In each of these databases, a search for scientific articles was carried out using the following five keywords: ‘rural drinking water Chile,’ ‘drinking water Chile,’ ‘water access Chile,’ ‘water scarcity Chile,’ and ‘water Chile.’ These keywords were consulted in three languages (Spanish, English, and French), yielding a total of 1,107 documents. A pre-selection of articles was carried out following the criterion that they addressed at least one of the following three topics: (a) access to drinking water in rural areas in Chile, (b) the institutional framework for drinking water in Chile, and (c) the entanglement between water resources and access to drinking water in Chile. After this process, the sample was reduced to 185 articles. Subsequently, a purge of duplicate files was carried out, which resulted in the identification of 53 articles. Finally, a content analysis of the articles was done, and those (12) that reported on the modalities of distribution or supply of water for domestic use of the rural population in Chile were examined in-depth.

The second stage of the methodology involved the compilation and statistical analysis of national databases. The purpose of this stage was to identify and quantify the modes of supply and distribution previously found in the systematic review of the relevant literature. To do this, two databases were used. On the one hand, the 2017 National Socio-economic Characterization Survey [Encuesta de Caracterización Socioeconómica Nacional (CASEN)] was used. This survey was implemented by the Chilean government and administered to Chilean households, rendering it representative on national, regional, and communal levels. The CASEN responses were constituted in a database with expansion factors, so the analysis allowed for population estimates. For this study, a regional expansion factor was used that made it possible to distinguish different realities of access to water with regional representativeness by Chilean households in rural areas. On the other hand, to estimate the number of social organizations in charge of managing water resources in rural areas of Chile, a process of consolidating a global database of community organizations for rural drinking water supply was carried out. This exercise entailed the integration of various fragmented databases that came from different public institutions involved in financing and/or supporting processes for said organizations. The databases were found on institutional web pages or requested through citizen service platforms.

The third methodological stage consisted of conducting semi-structured interviews with five experts from the rural drinking water sector in Chile. Three of the people interviewed are Ministry of Public Works (MOP in Spanish) officials, and the other two are leaders of APR organizations and representatives in the National Federations of Rural Potable Water organizations. The MOP officials have extensive field experience, while the organization leaders are highly involved in the drafting of the Rural Sanitary Services Law. The interviews were carried out with two objectives: The first was to obtain feedback on the proposed preliminary typology, and the second was to collect information on the processes that explain the heterogeneity of the modes of access to water of the rural population.

Modes of access to rural water: an emerging typology

After analyzing the relevant literature (first methodological stage) and quantitative data (second methodological stage), this study proposes a typology of the different modes of access to drinking water for the rural population in Chile. According to the CASEN survey (2017), the rural population in Chile is comprised of 2,257,128 people, of which 53.7% are supplied with drinking water through a network. We can assume that these people reside in urbanized spaces that have a local regulatory plan, where private sanitation companies provide drinking water and sanitation distribution services. The remaining 46.3% of the population, represented by just over a million people, do not have this type of service and, therefore, access water from other sources. According to CASEN (2017), the following three sources and forms are found: (1) directly from natural sources without any treatment (55.6%), which corresponds to individual or collective extraction from water sources that are not necessarily potable (e.g., river, spring, lake, and estuary); (2) from rural drinking water organizations that are part of the APR Program (28.1%); (3) from other community organizations that are not part of the APR Program and that have water purification treatment (15.8%). 5% reported other more precarious situations, such as help from neighbors or did not answer the question.

Despite the above, the systematic literature review revealed modes of accessing water for the rural population that are much more complex than the categories surveyed by the CASEN survey. To account for this diversity, Table 1 presents a typology that synthesizes and combines the different modes of access to drinking water collected both from the analysis of quantitative data and from the literature review, and it was also validated by experts. Table 1 shows that the diversity of modes of access can be grouped into three broad categories: collective network mode of access, private mode of access, and combined mode of access. The typology was built based on five criteria: the socio-technical system, the type of management, the level of action, the source of the financing, and the technical support. The socio-technical system represents the entanglement of the infrastructures and techniques installed with the maintenance practices and associated knowledge. The type of management refers to the organizational form implemented by the inhabitants to access water. The level of action describes the spatial delimitation of the socio-technical system. The source of the financing refers to the entity that initially finances the basic infrastructure. The type of support shows if any institution provides technical assistance to the inhabitants. Each mode of access to water identified in the typology is made up of a specific combination of a socio-technical system and a type of management, which are characterized by different levels of action, sources of financing, and types of technical support.

Table 1

Typology of modes of access to water in rural areas in Chile

 
 

The mode of access to drinking water by collective network

In rural areas, access to drinking water can be through a collective network whose distribution service is managed by local organizations at a neighborhood or locality level. According to the database consolidated during the investigation, it is estimated that there are 2,559 such organizations in Chile. However, source financing and technical support differ in space and time. Within the framework of the typology proposed in this study, we distinguish three types of organizations in charge of managing the service: (a) organizations affiliated with the APR Program financed by the Ministry of Public Works, (b) organizations financed by another public institution or private entity, which we have described as ‘formal,’ and (c) organizations promoted by private actors, which we have described as ‘autonomous.’

Organizations affiliated with the rural drinking water program

The most frequent mode of access corresponds to the service managed by organizations created under the umbrella of the APR Program. It is estimated that, of the rural population that does not have a public water supply network (just over a million people), 28.1% have access to drinking water through this means (CASEN 2017). According to the consolidated database, which sought to approximate all community water supply organizations in rural areas in Chile, 70% of all of these correspond to organizations affiliated with the APR Program and 30% to other organizations created with funds from other sources.

The management of the drinking water distribution service by these organizations has allowed for the effective use of the investments made by the State within the APR Program over an extensive period. In addition, these organizations define and set rates to carry out operations, maintenance, and minor repairs. To this end, these organizations mainly receive advice and technical and community assistance from the Technical Units of private sanitation companies with public financing, and training organized by the APR Subdirectorate. According to different studies, this institutional support explains that the organizations affiliated with the APR Program have, in general, managed to offer better service (criteria of quantity, continuity, and quality of the water) than community organizations that are not affiliated with the APR Program (Fuster & Donoso, 2018; Nelson-Nuñez et al., 2019).

However, the conditions of scarcity and the mega-drought scenario that has affected a large part of the national territory challenge the sustainability of the organizations, which have sometimes been forced to depend on cistern trucks. This situation is most common in the north of the country, where 61.4% of households that obtain water from APR organizations report that the water resources used in the home come from cistern trucks (CASEN, 2017). The national average of organizations that depend on cistern trucks is 15.8% while the remaining 84.2% use wells (72.7%), rivers, springs, lakes, estuaries (9.8%), or other sources (1.7%).

The APR Program database was updated in June 2020 and is comprised of 1,961 organizations. The database shows a diversity of characteristics and aspects of its management. In this sense, the operation scale−measured as the number of household water connections − varies from 1 to 4,303 with an average of 309 household water connections. Regarding the year that services were put into operation, the oldest dates back to 1964 and the most recent to 2020. A variable geographical distribution can also be seen: from the Arica region to Antofagasta there are around 100 organizations; from Coquimbo to Maule 993; and from Ñuble to Magallanes 870. It should be noted that 92.0% of the organizations correspond to APR Committees while the remaining 8% to APR Cooperatives, and that 81.1% are located in concentrated population areas, 18.6% in semi-concentrated population areas, and 0.3% in dispersed population areas.

Formal organizations

The second mode of access rests on the service provided by ‘formal’ organizations that are not affiliated with the APR Program. The existence of these organizations, commonly called ‘APR SUBDERE,’ ‘non-MOP,’ ‘basic,’ or neighborhood, derives from the granting of various public funds dedicated to improving the coverage of infrastructure for access to drinking water and sanitation in rural areas, often associated with rural housing policies (Micheletti & Troncoso, 2015). The National Fund for Regional Development administered by SUBDERE is the most important; however, there is also the Rural Sanitary Sanitation Subsidy (MINVU) and the Neighborhood Improvement Program (GORE and SUBDERE). It is estimated that 15.8% of the rural population that does not have a water supply network has access to drinking water through this means (CASEN, 2017).

Like the organizations affiliated with the APR Program, these organizations are made up of the inhabitants of the supplied locality. They usually appoint a board of directors that is in charge of billing the service and its maintenance on an ad honorem basis. In some cases, if the population manages to obtain the necessary resources, a manager, operator, and/or secretary is hired to take charge of the technical management of the service. The most significant difference these organizations have with those affiliated with the APR Program is that they do not receive training from the Technical Units of the sanitation companies, nor do they receive technical and administrative support from the institution that finances their creation or from the Rural Drinking Water Subdirectorate.

It should be noted that in the context of an emergency due to scarcity, a new type of formal organization has been created based on the delivery of water by cistern trucks to households that have a direct and private water supply. Although the socio-technical systems derived from the cistern trucks do not make up a network distribution service, the inhabitants are forced to organize themselves permanently to distribute water. This is the case, for example, in shantytowns on the outskirts of Valparaíso, where the municipality has granted the population community tanks of 10,000 liters, filled with water by cistern trucks financed by the inhabitants themselves. This system forces neighbors to organize themselves to collectively finance, store, and distribute water (Ojeda et al., 2020). Similarly, in the south of Chile, INDAP and CONADI have provided ‘Australian tanks’ to the population to be able to store the water delivered by cistern trucks, forcing the benefited inhabitants to define water distribution rules (Bravo et al., 2019).

Autonomous organizations

The third mode of access is derived from the network service provided by ‘autonomous’ organizations, in the sense that they were not created with the financial help of a state agency. These services are fully managed by the supplied population, which autonomously organizes itself to capture, store, and distribute water through a distribution network.

These organizations are not regulated by any state institution, so water treatment may not be guaranteed. Two representative cases of this situation have been identified in the literature: (1) services created by an initiative that are self-financed by the inhabitants and (2) services created within the framework of real-estate projects or rural housing complexes.

The first case is created from the local inhabitants' need and collective will to improve their access by installing a collective network and a home water connection. The most common procedure for this type of service is that some inhabitants organize themselves to obtain a catchment system and install the necessary infrastructure to distribute the water through a distribution network. These organizations do not usually have regularized water rights nor do they own the land where the infrastructures are located, or at least the land is not in the organization's name, so they lack water treatment and tariff systems. In addition, they lack established selection criteria to incorporate new users. For this reason, in some cases, the autonomous creation of these services usually constitutes the initial stage of the organizations, which are regularized and later integrated into the APR Program to receive financial and technical support or training. However, it has been reported that the members of autonomous organizations do not want to be formalized to avoid state requirements for the provision of rural drinking water, which are considered difficult to comply with, as is the case of some rural and indigenous communities in the south of the country (Bravo et al., 2019).

In the second case, the water distribution services are installed in conjunction with the construction of houses in rural condominiums. In these housing projects, real-estate companies install water collection, storage, and distribution systems to supply the different homes with water. This autonomous collective solution is usually due to the impossibility of connecting the houses to the network controlled by the nearest sanitation company, which, according to the General Law of Sanitary Services, is not required to deliver water outside its urban concession; APR Committees or Cooperatives close to the real-estate project are also not required to supply water to the new homes. Due to this situation, real-estate companies have two options: (a) create private sanitation companies to guarantee access to water and sewage collection in their rural housing projects (Lukas et al., 2020) or (b) create small distribution services of drinking water within the condominiums themselves. The latter explains the formation of autonomous organizations in charge of the service. According to the Law on Real-Estate Co-ownership, these services can be part of the common domain assets, and their operation and maintenance are financed through homeowner association fees. The number of autonomous organizations that exist in Chile is unknown since they are not part of the records of public institutions or organizations.

The mode of access to private water

In contrast to community access and management of water is individual access and private supply at the household level. In this case, households obtain water directly from the source, either from the surface or underground. This mode of supply is the most prevalent in rural areas of Chile; it is estimated that 55.6% of rural households obtain water from natural sources without treatment as the main form of supply (CASEN, 2017).

The prevalence of individual access to water is not surprising since it represents the historical solution in rural areas with low population density. The literature indicates that the population living in isolated spaces obtains water directly from springs or canals, or installs individual solutions to access water, such as networks, rainwater collectors, individual tanks, or wells (Nicolas-Artero, 2015; Bravo et al., 2019). Of the segment of the rural population that is supplied directly from a water source, 65.6% obtains it from underground sources (wells), 31.6% from surface sources (rivers, springs, lakes, or estuaries), 1.8% from cistern trucks, and 1.0% from other sources (rainwater, borrowed water, among others)1 (CASEN, 2017). The type of source is partly conditioned by the availability and ease of access to water resources. In the southern regions of the country, it is common to obtain water directly from rivers, estuaries, springs, or wells, unlike other areas of the country. Between the Ñuble and Magallanes regions, 41.8% of households obtain water directly from surface sources while this situation is less prevalent in the central zone (17.5% between Valparaíso and Maule) and the north of the country (35.6% between Arica and Coquimbo) (CASEN, 2017), where the use of underground sources predominates.

It should be noted that in regions where water resources are abundant, the direct extraction of water for domestic consumption from surface sources does not usually generate a great impact on other users in the basin. For this reason, whether with or without ownership of water use rights, this type of extraction does not usually produce conflicts of use (Costumero et al., 2017). In contrast, in the northern regions of the country, the possibilities of access are considerably reduced and the degree of conflict is greater. In any case, the lack of regularization of water use rights represents an important factor in the precariousness of this type of access to water (Prieto, 2017). This is also reflected in the level of dependence on cistern trucks since between the regions of Arica and Coquimbo, 7.4% of the population that usually obtains water directly from natural sources obtains water from cistern trucks (CASEN, 2017), while only 1.6% of households between Valparaíso and Maule and 1.5% between Ñuble and Magallanes obtain water through this means2.

The combined mode of access to water

In rural areas, it is increasingly common for the population's mode of access to water to be combined; that is, the population is supplied by the collective distribution service of the locality and privately at the household level. In this way, a socio-technical system based on a network and private supply are combined in the same home, generating a type of hybrid management. In general, rural households are motivated to diversify their water sources depending on the circumstances, such as the amount of water available, the perception of its quality, and the unit cost of water. Households that have hybrid modes of access allocate drinking water (or perceived higher quality water) to human consumption, while lower quality water is used for domestic chores, such as washing clothes, cleaning in general, hygiene, or watering gardens.

Two situations illustrate this mode of access. One of them occurs when situations of scarcity occur, where the amount of water provided by the collective organization is not enough to meet the needs of households, motivating the population to supplement their water requirements with other sources. Another situation that describes this hybrid modality is sometimes observed in the rural/urban interface of cities, where the population is supplied with water through a collective organization, but usually has an individual mode of access as a complement for recreational use (swimming pools, garden) or subsistence (orchard, animal feed).

The magnitude of the hybrid access modality in the country is unknown due to its contingency and location, although we assume that it is growing due to the drought and the resulting water scarcity. Existing census data allow for a glimpse of hybridity through dependence on cistern trucks, although it does not offer precise statistical data. Narratives from qualitative research help illustrate this type of combined access. In the case analyzed by Oppliger et al., (2019), in the commune of La Unión, Los Ríos Region, a situation of insufficient water is described in two APR committees as a result of a decrease in the level of the water table. Faced with this phenomenon, the population was forced to obtain water by other means, such as streams and springs. On the other hand, Ojeda et al., (2020) show that in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Valparaíso, the population has access to water in a combined way, either through wells, springs, informal connections, and/or through the purchase of drinking water distributed by municipal cistern trucks. The diversity of sources of access to water generated new forms of collective organization to distribute the resource, thus revealing a combination of collective and individual modes of access to water.

Constitutive elements of the heterogeneity of modes of access to water

In this discussion section, dimensions are proposed that explain the heterogeneity of the modes of access to water in rural areas. This is due to an entanglement of legal, social, and environmental processes. The explanatory elements arise from a content analysis of the interviews conducted with key informants and allow us to understand some dimensions of the heterogeneity of the modes of access.

A flexible and yet to be defined legal framework

First, the water legal framework has impacted the rural population's access to water due to the evolution and flexibility of water legislation and related institutions. Since the 1960s and even more so in the 1990s, the lack of a law and a state body to regulate the sector explains the plurality of public and private devices aimed at increasing the coverage of drinking water and sanitation in the rural population. In this sense, the enactment of Law 20,998 in 2019 represents a milestone in national water legislation. The absence of a previous regulatory framework indirectly implied the creation of a plurality of distribution services and water supply modalities, whether self-financed or financed by different institutions. These took various forms (catchment, storage, distribution, treatment) since there were no parameters regarding the socio-technical systems or the quality of the services to be installed, nor was there state control of the latter.

Over time, the APR Program has become the main axis of state intervention in the sector. Although international and national financial resources have continued to increase since the creation of the program in 1964, these have not been able to respond to the needs of the entire rural population, nor have they anticipated the situations derived from the water crisis. On the one hand, MOP established conditions based on the cost-benefit methodology applied by the Ministry of Social Development, so the localities that did not correspond to those conditions sought alternative financing and support. Since these areas were unable to establish organizations affiliated with the APR Program, they either created formal organizations or autonomous organizations, or they maintained private access. On the other hand, financial support for ‘improvement’ or ‘expansion’ by MOP to the organizations affiliated with the APR Program takes time (between 1 and 10 years). In many cases, the socio-technical systems deteriorated because of the wait, causing the APR organizations to have technical failures, resulting in water scarcity. Due to this decline in the quality of service, households have sought alternative sources of water, giving rise to combined access. It should be noted that, in both cases, the prioritization of the beneficiary localities or organizations may have been influenced by the political and economic interests of the regional administrations, explaining the diversity of modes of access to water at the local level.

Socio-economic inequalities

Second, socio-economic inequalities favor the consolidation of heterogeneous socio-technical systems. Social, economic, and educational characteristics significantly affect the possibilities that populations have of obtaining technical or financial resources to improve their access to water. In Chile, the poverty level is higher in rural areas than in cities, and the educational level is lower, particularly among the population that works in the agricultural sector. For this reason, rural populations that organize themselves collectively to improve their access to water are unaware of the aid to which they are entitled, due in part to a lack of knowledge of the relevant laws (Nielsen, 2000). Therefore, populations with a higher degree of education and with a certain degree of local social capital tend to obtain financial support to improve their access to water, which can take the form of transforming an autonomous organization into an organization affiliated with the APR Program. Inequalities also affect an organization or a household's possibility to register the rights to use water in their name or request help from the municipality to receive water by cistern trucks.

In addition, the low educational and economic level of the members of an organization, and especially of those who make up the board of directors, also has a degree of incidence on the quality of the distribution service provided (Fuster & Donoso, 2018). If the level of training of a board of directors is low, the organization is at greater risk of having problems managing the service (frequent water cuts, poor quality, low pressure). Organization members had to look for alternative water sources due to these material conditions and their perception that the water was of poor quality, leading to the formation of combined types of access to water.

Urbanization and population growth

The increase in the rural population has produced a diversification of the modes of access to water due to the urbanization process that it induces. In recent years, and even more so due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of withdrawing a percentage of the funds from the Pension Fund Administrators in 20213, many rural towns have become a center of attraction, either for the development of tourist activities, the construction of second homes, or to establish a permanent residence. In general, the houses isolated from the main population centers implement individual access modes, taking water directly from different sources. In turn, the population that settles in rural condominiums joins or forms new autonomous organizations. For example, when families settle in rural housing projects that have installed water distribution systems, they adhere to the autonomous organization when purchasing the home. The population that settles in more impoverished rural villages can adhere to the existing autonomous organization, although this depends on the feasibility of the socio-technical system and the will of the inhabitants. The lack of feasibility of water in the face of demographic pressure, which is also known by some organizations affiliated with the APR Program, leads recently settled families to seek hybrid modes of access.

This type of combined access is also developed when the increase in the demand for water, due to demographic growth in certain rural localities, produces situations of scarcity. The rise of rural tourism in the summer period saturates many collective distribution services, for example, reducing water pressure or increasing the number of water outages. It also implies an increase in sewage that is discharged into running water collected by organizations or rural households, thus deteriorating the quality of the water sources collected. These situations lead the population to diversify their sources, favoring the use of combined modes of access.

In some cases, population growth produces such an important urban extension that the water distribution service managed by an organization can be delegated to a private sanitation company. Indeed, faced with the increase in population density and the difficulty of providing drinking water and, above all, sanitation needs of the populations, some APR or formal organizations cede part of their service to nearby sanitation companies. In other cases, urbanization may lead the municipality to create a regulatory plan for land use, which, by law, assumes that the organizations in charge of the service comply with the quality parameters defined by the General Law on Sanitary Services in urban areas. If a private water company shows an interest in the new concession area, the rural organization risks losing the concession.

Climate change, mega-drought, and water scarcity

The mega-drought that the country is going through as a result of climate change is an essential element needed to understand the diversification of modes of access to rural water. The drop in the level of rainfall has reduced the supply of water in the basins. For this reason, on the one hand, the springs that supplied rural homes with water have disappeared, especially in the months of increased temperatures, from December to February. On the other hand, the recharge capacity of the water table has decreased, producing a drop in the water mirror level or a depletion of the wells that supply the rural population. Therefore, climate change has been characterized by a reduction in the level of available water that supplies the organizations in charge of the service or rural households.

However, water scarcity is not only due to climatic factors, but also anthropogenic factors, such as the increase in local water demand (Alvarez-Garreton et al., 2021). This boom in water use is also due to the characteristics of the administration of water resources in Chile. In many basins of the country, the General Directorate of Waters [Dirección General de Aguas (DGA)], a state agency in charge of regulating water resources, has over-granted rights to use surface and groundwater; the use concessions granted by the State exceed the recharge capacity of the basins (Barría et al., 2021). As the ownership of the rights is associated with private property, the State cannot modify the characteristics of the rights retroactively (reduce the flows) or confiscate them. In addition, illegal practices aimed at capturing surface or groundwater often occur; however, the poor oversight capacity of the DGA prevents identifying, sanctioning, and therefore discouraging such practices (Budds, 2012). For these reasons, a situation of sustained overconsumption of water has been generated in various basins of the country, which triggers the current situations of scarcity.

The rural population is usually the first affected when situations of water scarcity occur since, in many cases, the organizations that manage the supply do not have their water rights regularized. In addition to the above, the absence of a prioritization scheme for the use of water in the country implies a vis-a-vis competition between human consumption and productive activities, such as agriculture, industry, and mining. Faced with this situation, the rural population in Chile has been forced to diversify their modes of access to water, giving rise to combined access. In some cases, the organizations in charge of the distribution service receive water by cistern trucks, and their members look for alternative sources (surface, underground, or rain) or buy water drums. Similarly, households that have private access have also diversified their water sources through the purchase of water drums or the water received by cistern trucks, demonstrating a certain hybridity in their mode of access.

Access to drinking water for rural populations in Chile is less systemic and homogeneous than might have been thought after sixty years of the APR Program. At a time when water policy takes a fundamental turn with the application of the Law on Rural Sanitary Services, this article proposes a typology to identify the different modes of access to drinking water and offers explanations of its heterogeneity. The modes of access are made up of the association of socio-technical systems (with or without a network) and types of organization (organization, individual, hybrid). These are characterized by specific levels of action (locality, neighborhood, home), source of financing (state, private, inhabitants, none), and type of technical support (state, none, or private). The plurality of modes of access can be represented in three large groups: collective network modes of access at the level of a locality, private modes of access at the household level, and combined modes of access. These come precisely to question the hegemony of the ‘network’ model consecrated by the new law.

In the international literature, the presentation of community management as a model to improve access to water for the rural population emerged during the ‘Decade for Drinking Water and Sanitation’ in the 1980s. This was established to alleviate the action of the State, which was seen as insufficient, or as a way to follow the example of local development projects implemented by NGOs. This model was strengthened in the 1990s, with the emphasis placed on the ‘Demand Responsive Approach’ that considers the participation and economic involvement of the population as the guarantor of the maintenance of the service and the installed infrastructure (Moriarty et al., 2013; Hutchings et al., 2017). The case of Chile reveals that the delegation of this service to the inhabitants began earlier in the 1960s through an international cooperation program implemented by the State. It can be considered that the heterogeneity observed in the modes of access responds to the early involvement of the rural population in the management of this service. The relationship of the population to the State has constantly changed according to State water policies and investment strategies, such as prioritizing densely populated rural areas, but also due to the requirements and expectations that the State had for the population in terms of community management of the service, which became more demanding over time (Pineda et al., 2022). The orientation of the policies of the Chilean State changed radically – developmentalist, subsidiary – during the 20th and 21st centuries, depending on the development models adopted.

The identified modes of access emerge in an inorganic and individual way, sometimes spontaneously, and do not respond to a systemic design or a predefined management scheme. The different modes are not interrelated with each other, nor can the exact causes of their emergence be determined. They also do not form a whole that would present a coherent unit in itself from which ‘systemic’ corrective interventions could be carried out. Creating a typology of the modes of access allows us to offer a systematization of something inorganic, underlining and analyzing the diversity of existing socio-technical systems and types of organization. This identification is presented as a tool for the State to improve access to water for the rural population, as proposed by the new Law on Rural Sanitary Services, so it can adapt to local realities and recognize diversity through instruments of management. In this way, the typology and the criteria that compose it constitute an instrument that guides decision-making within the current mechanisms of public policy, recognizing the heterogeneity of modes of access.

In this sense, talking about modes of access reveals informal practices, unrecognized or regulated by the State, and generates elements of understanding of their emergence and potential vulnerabilities. These practices are a result of the lack of consistency of state regulation both in legal and normative matters, and the importance of making them visible lies in granting rural populations equal opportunities to obtain adequate access to water, or in the change of use of land, and in establishing concrete measures to limit the situation of scarcity produced by anthropic and climatic factors. These practices are, moreover, an expression of the capacity for agency and self-organization that, even under conditions of legal and economic water restrictions, certain rural organizations and households manage to have to provide themselves with water.

These explanations of heterogeneity constitute, in turn, influential aspects on the different degrees of quality of access to water for the rural population, considering criteria of quantity, quality, and continuity. Therefore, the legal framework, inequalities, urbanization, and climate change are elements on which the State must act to guarantee the human right to water in rural areas.

All relevant data are included in the paper or its Supplementary Information.

The authors declare there is no conflict.

1

These percentages represent the main source of water; however, households may combine different sources to supply themselves.

2

We can assume that this percentage has increased over the last 4 years.

3

In 2021, the Chilean Parliament voted to make it possible for people to withdraw from their pension funds as a way of facing the economic effects of the pandemic. To date (December 2021), three withdrawals of ten percent of the funds have been allowed, which has generated liquidity of money that has transformed into consumption and/or forms of investment, including the purchase of properties.

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