The Memory of Rivers: Toxic Waste, Inequalities, and Shared Urban Futures

Muli-layered collage: The Mapocho River, the main urban tributary of Santiago de Chile, flows for 110 kilometers through 16 of the province’s 32 municipalities; water pipes sprout from high-rise buildings; the green spaces on the banks merge seamlessly into garbage dumps; the urban showcase is abruptly interrupted by dilapidated social housing with graffiti protest signs emblazoned on the banks: “por mas y mejor democracia... la derecha noooo...” (“for more and better democracy... the right noooo...”); environmental justice activist from Violeta Paus’ documentary “Siluetas de agua” (2021). Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Water, especially flowing water such as rivers, manifests the circular, reticular character of all infrastructures of life: there is a certain amount of water on earth that circulates in different bodies and forms, but it is always the same element that returns, even when it seems to disappear. This is also true of the rivers that connect our cities to the world and vice versa, as the Sin Fama ni Gloria collective shows in their contribution to the “Kin City” series, which deals with the struggle for water as a commons in Chile and the urban politics of the Mapocho River.

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Just a few weeks ago, after heavy rains in central Chile, images circulated on social media of the residents of the Petorca municipality celebrating the resurgence of the river of the same name. Applause, honking horns, and shouts of joy welcomed the flow of a river that had disappeared since 1997 due to a chronic drought. The drought was not only due to the lack of rain and the effects of climate change, but mainly to the excessive use of water resources by the avocado export industry, an exotic crop.

The Water Law, in force since 1981 under the legal framework established by the 1980 Constitution, implemented during the civil-military dictatorship, has created a unique situation in Chile, since it declares water a private good, independent of the land, whose exclusive use can be appropriated by entrepreneurs to the detriment of the local population. The case of Petorca is just one of many in which people, animals, and vegetation in Chile suffer the consequences of water appropriation and contamination.

Water struggles

There was an attempt to reverse this with the proposal of a new constitutional text, which was voted on and rejected on September 4, 2022. The new charter emerged from an unprecedented constitutional convention in the country’s history, composed of diverse representatives from civil society, indigenous peoples, institutional political parties, and environmental activism, among others. It was constructed in response to the uprising that began in October 2019 by broad sectors of the population against the neoliberal model of accumulation through dispossession, sectors that had as one of their main slogans the restoration of the public right to access and consume water. Far from the radical vision that privatizes its use, the new proposal establishes the protection by the State of the hydrological cycle and water in all its states and phases, and also recognizes its relevance for the exercise of human rights and the rights of nature.

In 2023, another constitutional text was proposed and again rejected by the people. This proposal was drafted mainly by representatives of far-right, right-wing and current government political parties. Article 16, number 35, letter i states that “water, in any of its states and in natural sources or state development works, is a national public good. Consequently, its use and ownership belong to the entire nation. Notwithstanding this, rights of use of water may be established or recognized, granting their holders the use and enjoyment of these waters, and allowing them to dispose of, transfer and assign these rights in accordance with the law.” In this proposal, water, conceived as a resource that can be bought and sold, returns to the path of privatization enshrined in Augusto Pinochet’s constitution, which is still in force despite the two alternatives proposed.

Memories of care and pollution

Violeta Paus’ documentary “Siluetas de agua” (2021) denounces the dramatic situations resulting from this deplorable constitutional regulation through three emblematic cases: the water crisis in Petorca, the contamination of water by excessive garbage in the port of Valparaíso, and the so-called ‘sacrifice zone’ of Quinteros and Puchuncaví – known as the Chernobyl of Chile – where water is contaminated by chemical waste from the Ventanas industrial complex. Paus follows three women who personify life under environmental violence, as it has been primarily women who have organized to denounce the living conditions of the inhabitants of these three localities. The documentary portrays them as specific figures of a collective devastation, approached through a choral narrative: the screen is divided into three segments, showing the faces of three women simultaneously, through an aesthetic proposal that emphasizes the structural dimension of the conflict and the precarious living conditions, framed by a camera that captures fragments rescued from a larger panorama that has been systematically suppressed. It is an exercise in visibilization, but also the institution of a memory: the memory of women who care for and raise animals, plants and children; the memory of poisoned water, absent water, water that has been denied to them.

Another memory, in this case that of the Mapocho River, the main urban tributary of Santiago de Chile, whose 110 kilometers flow through 16 of the 32 municipalities of the province, flowed in recent months in the exhibition “Oír-Río” (Hear-River) by the artist Máximo Corvalán-Pincheira. The work, inaugurated at the end of 2023 at the National Museum of Fine Arts as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, consisted of the installation of a watercourse that recreated the Mapocho River, highlighting its characteristic murky waters, the sound of running water and the circularity of the element.

The voices of urban waters

The simplicity of the work contrasted with its political potency, which was supported by at least three aspects: first, the sensory and aesthetic aspect, already present in the title of the exhibition, which called for attentive listening to the voices of urban waters that have disappeared due to the hydraulic engineering of the canals or have been drowned in the noise of the city. Second, the ecological aspect, highlighted by the visible circularity of the water, which descends a steel ramp, falls into a well and is carried back to the top of the slope. This simple operation revealed the well-known but difficult to assimilate fact that there is a certain amount of water on the planet that circulates in different bodies and forms, but is always the same element that returns, even when it seems to leave, as in the case of rivers.

Finally, the more local political aspect, which refers to the traumatic memory of the Mapocho River, a dumping ground not only for garbage during most of the 20th century, but also for human bodies thrown into its course during the dictatorship. It is the same memory that the writer Nona Fernández rescued in her novel “Mapocho” (2002), in which the protagonist is once again the urban river that has become a sewer and a dump of death. Down this river flows the ghost body of the novel’s protagonist, unable to leave the city or the river because memory insists on bringing her back, just as it will always bring us all back until ecological and political justice is fully realized, ensuring the reproduction of the multiple forms of life that inhabit the earth.

Silent witness to colonial-capitalist violence

The recent aesthetic centrality of the Mapocho River merely reflects its historical significance, a river that has meandered like a silent witness to the social and economic dynamics that have shaped the city. Once the lifeline and commercial center of the Reche-Mapuche communities, the river has undergone a drastic transformation over the centuries. Today, the Mapocho carries not only water, but also the waste of a colonial-modern society whose progress produces and carries with it a burden of waste and inequality. From its source in the Andes, where crystal-clear waters descend between perennially snow-capped peaks, to its passage through the capital’s communities, the Mapocho River reflects a stark and palpable dichotomy. Upstream, where elegant residences and manicured plazas overlook its banks, the river seems to reflect urban prosperity and order. As the river descends into the valley and passes through the city center, its socioeconomic nature changes drastically.

In the poor neighborhoods downstream, the Mapocho becomes more than a river: it becomes an open-air sewer. Here, the precariousness and lack of adequate infrastructure are reflected in the accumulation of garbage and trash in its waters and on its banks. The river is polluted not only by waste, but also by the social and economic inequality that separates the extremes of the city. Under the bridges that cross it, on the margins where land and water meet, lives an invisible and marginalized population: abandoned children and adolescents who find in these spaces a precarious refuge, so delicately captured by the photographer Sergio Larraín in the 1950s. Today, more than seventy years later, little has changed. There, among the remnants of a society that advances and forgets, these children face the harshness of daily survival.

In the shadows of the city

The Mapocho River is thus a powerful symbol of urban, ecological, political, and social contradictions. It is a tangible reminder of the gulf that separates those who live in opulence from those who struggle to survive in the shadows of the city or in oblivion. The Mapocho River is not only a body of water, but also a living testimony to the collective memory and open wounds of a city struggling to reconcile its dream of progress with the marginal existence of the vast majority.

The riverbed that crosses the capital of Chile resembles an open scar, redirected and cemented. A scar that divides and (re)marks light from darkness, wealth from poverty, and challenges us with its smells and sounds. It challenges us to find solutions that reconcile these differences, restore dignity, and return the Mapocho River to its original role as a source of life and shared memory. What seeps and resonates in the rivers is what we do not always want to see, hear or feel, what neither letter nor law can erase: in the rivers dwells the flow of the common.

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