Featured,  Interview

Managing Chile’s Scarce Water Resources: Rubicon Chile An interview with Gastón Sagredo

The Australian company Rubicon is a world leader in irrigation control and monitoring devices. For about 7 years, Rubicon has had a presence in Chile, a largely arid country where climatic changes are making irrigation efficiency ever more important. While at first Rubicon was represented in Chile by intermediaries, as of a year ago, it has its own independent office in Santiago, the country’s capital, from which it directs activities across South America. In this interview, Gastón Sagredo, chief of studies at Rubicon Chile, speaks with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about how Rubicon’s technology is aiding Chile’s farmers, and about his experiences meeting the participants in Irrigation Leader’s recent tour of Chile.

Rubicon installations at the Bellavista Canal Association, Coquimbo Region. Photo courtesy of Rubicon Chile.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Gastón Sagredo: Rubicon has been in Chile for about 7 years, but at first it was directed from Australia and was represented through intermediary companies. I was working in one of those businesses, and I got to know Rubicon’s technology through the press and through training programs. I visited Australia through a training program that Rubicon held for its intermediary companies.

Eventually, Rubicon decided to open an office in Chile, and 1 year ago, Rubicon Chile came into existence. In fact, this office manages work all over Latin America, including in Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. While they were setting up their office here in Santiago, the people from Rubicon remembered me and remembered that I already knew their technology, and they called me and offered me a job at Rubicon Chile. Right now, there are 10 people working here, and fortunately, we are making good progress.

Joshua Dill: Would you please give us an overall picture of irrigated agriculture in Chile and how Rubicon’s products fit in the industry?

Gastón Sagredo: Before I worked for Rubicon, I spent 15 years working for Chile’s National Irrigation Commission (Comisión Nacional de Riego, CNR), which is a governmental agency that provides funding to improve irrigation systems in Chile. This job allowed me to get to know the irrigation world, the various problems that irrigators face, and the culture of our country’s farmers.

Because our country is so extensive from north to south, its climate varies according to region. On the whole, however, we have been affected by climate change rather seriously. Our precipitation has diminished by quite a lot, meaning that there is less and less water available for irrigation. That reduction of precipitation has motivated farmers to search for technology to make their irrigation more efficient and to efficiently manage the resources they still have. Gradually, irrigation in Chile has been getting more technologically advanced. That is where Rubicon comes in. Rubicon technology enables the timely and exact delivery of the flow that farmers have assigned to them or that they own.

Rubicon installations at the Bellavista Canal Association, Coquimbo Region. Photo courtesy of Rubicon Chile.

Right now, it is the north of Chile that is suffering the worst water scarcity, while the south still has more water resources. All the same, even though the southern regions have a positive water balance, farmers there are looking at what is happening in the north and realizing that they need to make use of this kind of technology so that they can avoid shortage.

Joshua Dill: How does Rubicon find new clients in Chile?

Gastón Sagredo: Our principal way to find new clients is through recommendations by other users. However, we are also undertaking a campaign to visit various boards of control (juntas de vigilancia) and demonstrate Rubicon’s technology. That has opened doors with irrigators.

Boards of control are in charge of naturally occurring hydrological resources, such as rivers. Then there are user-based canal associations, which are in charge of canals and other artificial structures. The boards of control are fairly well organized and are becoming more and more professionalized, so working with them is easy.

Another thing that has been effective are technical visits, both within Chile and in Australia. We take farmers from the south to visit farmers in the north, where our products and technology are installed, and do a consultation. That’s how we get a lot of our clients.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us a bit more about the problems that Rubicon is working to solve.

Gastón Sagredo: In Chile, water rights are privately held—a farmer owns a water right as if it were a property. The farmer may hold 50 liters a second (about 1.75 cubic feet per second) of flow, for example. However, because of water scarcity, many farmers don’t receive the total amount they are entitled to. That is where Rubicon comes in: We work to deliver the river water in a proportional manner, or to deliver the maximum possible amount from the river or from a reservoir. During the drought of 2014–2015, the head reservoirs in the basins, principally in the north, practically went dry, except for a few that were full to 10 or 15 percent of their capacity. Rubicon gates allowed water suppliers to guarantee a more equitable distribution of these scarce resources.

Rubicon installations at the Mallarauco Canal Association, Metropolitan Region. Photo courtesy of Rubicon Chile.

What is the alternative to Rubicon gates? There are manual-delivery plate sluice gates, but they are not very precise, and they’re also slow. Rubicon’s gates provide efficient delivery on short notice and are easier to maintain. They can also provide a detailed delivery of water from place to place.

Joshua Dill: What are the challenges for Rubicon in implementing its technology in Chile?

Gastón Sagredo: We’re doing a lot of work with the rivers and boards of control, but up to this point, we have not been working in many canals. We want to be working in many more. The canal associations have fewer resources, so it is difficult for them to implement new technologies.

Second, it is challenging to implement top-of-the-line technology like that of Rubicon. Right now, I’d say we are in stage 2 of Rubicon technology here in Chile. Up until this point, Rubicon has worked to implement its technology in deliveries of river water, working with the boards of control and in the management of some canals. The challenge is to implement Rubicon’s advanced Total Channel Control technology, which would allow the integration of a variety of components developed by Rubicon and the precise and timely delivery of irrigation water in response to demand, eliminating channel loss.

Joshua Dill: What was your experience with the Irrigation Leader tour?

Gastón Sagredo: Among the tour group, there were Rubicon users from the United States. It was interesting to learn how they operated and used Rubicon systems in their own country.The tour was a way for us to gain information as well. On the other hand, I think it was interesting for them to see the style of management used by farmers in Chile under conditions of intense water shortage.

Rubicon installations at the Mallarauco Canal Association, Metropolitan Region. Photo courtesy of Rubicon Chile.

The landscape here in Chile is also very different from what the tour group was used to. Here, you can pass from a practically desertlike region into completely green irrigated valleys. There is also much less rainfall here than they were used to. We have a huge, 5,000- meter tall (16,000-foot-tall) mountain range where snow accumulates, and that’s where the rivers come from.

I’m interested in building direct relationships and trading visions, both on the institutional or governmental level and on the personal level. Without that, a person could continue working for years without being open to new technology or new experiences. It’s important for these interchanges to happen.

It is also important that farmers here in Chile see how people from abroad see things. I think many of them thought it was strange that people came all the way from the United States to see how they did things. But once we explained it a bit, they realized that people in the United States face similar problems: organizational problems, conflicts between users, water scarcity. They were able to realize that their problems were not unique, even though solving them requires a lot of steps. It also showed them that, yes, these problems can be solved. I hope that Kris and the others at Irrigation Leader continue doing this kind of tour.

Gastón Sagredo is chief of studies at Rubicon Chile. He can be contacted at gaston.sagredo@rubiconwater.com.