ICJ rules that Bolivia and Chile both have right to use disputed river

The ICJ recognized Bolivia’s sovereign right to the canalization of the Silala river as well as Chile’s usufruct right to its waters

December 03, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
The ICJ delivers a verdict on the dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the Silala river. Photo: ICJ

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), on Thursday, December 2, delivered its verdict on the dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the use of the waters of the Silala river, which originates in Bolivia and crosses Chile. The Hague-based United Nations court ruled that “Silala is an international watercourse,” and that both countries have “the right to an equitable and reasonable use” of its waters.

The ICJ also established that Bolivia has the sovereign right over the Silala spring as well as the right to dismantle or make modifications to the artificial channels that carry water from its territory to the neighboring country. The ICJ also recognized Chile’s usufruct right (a legal right accorded to a person or party that confers the temporary right to use and derive income or benefit from someone else’s property) to the waters of Silala.

The ICJ said that most of the claims had been resolved during the judicial process and the parties had managed to reach agreements. It recalled that Bolivia “no longer questions the international course” of the Silala waters, and that Chile “has recognized that it does not have an acquired right” over the artificially channeled water flow. In this regard, the ICJ urged the neighboring countries to work together on issues surrounding the frontier river, and protect the shared water resource through cooperation.

The Silala river originates from a spring in Bolivia’s Potosí department and descends towards the Pacific Ocean basin. Over the last six years, the use of its water has been the subject of a dispute between the South American countries.

In 2016, Chile asked the ICJ to declare the Silala river an international watercourse in order to guarantee Chileans’ right over the use of water resources in their territory. Two years later, in 2018, Bolivia asked the ICJ to recognize its rights over the river’s artificial flow given the fact that the country built a system of canals to collect water from high-altitude wetlands. Bolivia also demanded that Chile pay compensation for the use of the resources downstream.

Bolivian President Luis Arce and Chilean President Gabriel Boric both expressed their satisfaction with the ruling.

President Arce, in a tweet, celebrated that the ICJ “ratified our rights over the waters of Silala and our sovereignty over the dismantling of artificial canals.”

“Bolivia resolved the controversy with a sister nation thanks to the work based on scientific studies and our international relations strategy. We will continue this work for the benefit of the people,” added Arce.

Meanwhile, President Boric, at a press conference from the Moneda presidential palace, described the ruling as “solid”, “well-founded” and “favorable to what the State of Chile has sustained.”

“Here we are honoring a tradition of excellence in our foreign policy, which is crowned with the obtaining of a solid and well-founded ruling that today manifests itself in a decision that is favorable to what the State of Chile has sustained. The ruling that the International Court of the Hague has delivered today has been categorical. Chile went to the Court for legal certainty and obtained it,” said Boric.

Boric also expressed his government’s intention to continue working towards deepening and improving relations with Bolivia.

“Today, after this ruling, we can focus on what unites us and not on what separates us, promoting cooperation to contribute to the development of our countries and peoples,” he said.

The Chilean president added that his government has every “will to work with Bolivia on issues such as security, migration, the fight against organized crime, and the fight against climate change.”

The dispute over the Silala river was one of several water-related issues that have spurred tensions between Bolivia and Chile. For over a hundred years, the neighboring countries have been in conflict over the maritime territory lost at the Battle of Calama in the late 1800s, which left Bolivia landlocked. Bolivia broke diplomatic relations with Chile in 1978 after the failure of negotiations seeking a solution to the sovereignty over the 400 km of coastline on the Pacific Ocean in the Antofagasta and Calama coastal regions.

In March, following the inauguration of President Boric, President Arce expressed his optimism about the resolution of the long-standing struggle of the Bolivian people and state for maritime access.