Desalination and the disarticulation of water resources: Stabilising the neoliberal model in Chile

Maria Christina Fragkou, Jessica Budds

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)
19 Downloads (Pure)


In recent years, seawater desalination has become a more viable and common solution to water scarcity around the world. Desalination is a supply-led solution in that it produces additional water, rather than manages demand for existing resources. Although a growing body of work has analysed the environmental and social implications of desalination, desalinated water has to date been considered as an additional source that fulfils demand, with little attention to how it integrates with existing sources, and to what effect(s). In this paper, we employ the framework of the hydrosocial cycle to analyse how desalination reconfigures the social relations of control over water and reworks waterscapes in Chile. Using two case studies of Antofagasta and Petorca in the drought-affected north, which are dominated by export industries – mining and agriculture, respectively – we argue that desalination serves to disarticulate drinking water from freshwater, with implications for economic growth, social development, and water policy. We show that desalination entails more than providing additional water to alleviate shortages, and rather constitutes a strategy that permits the reorganisation of water sources so as to permit new forms of capital accumulation, through both the water industry as well as the major industries that are threatened by scarcity. We argue that this has three important implications. First, replacing freshwater with desalinated water for human consumption changes the social relations of control over water, by rendering consumers dependent on desalination plants and their risks. Second, this disarticulation serves to liberate freshwater to sustain the same industries that encroached on drinking water sources. Third, as a supply-led solution, desalination alleviates some of the water shortages that had been attributed to Chile's water markets model, thereby reducing pressure for reform.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)448-463
Number of pages16
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number2
Early online date3 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


  • capital accumulation
  • export industries
  • governance
  • hydrosocial cycle
  • political ecology
  • water scarcity

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