Featured,  Interview

Managing Water in Chile: The National Irrigation Commission An interview with Federico Errázuriz

T

he National Irrigation Commission (Comisión Nacional de Riego, CNR) is the government agency charged with supporting irrigated agriculture and funding irrigation projects in the nation of Chile, giving it a role similar to the Bureau of Reclamation in the United States. Having suffered serious droughts for the last decade, Chile is working hard to modernizeits storage and conveyance infrastructure and to promote on-farm efficiency. One of the ways the CNR supports these efforts is by providing funding for infrastructure projects. However, the CNR follows an unusual strategy of subsidizing projects only after they are already constructed and functional.

In this interview, Federico Errázuriz, executive secretary of the CNR, speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about the agency he directs, its funding strategy, and the results it has achieved.

Federico Errázuriz at a ceremony for the award of a subsidy in Maule region, Chile. Photo courtesy of the CNR.

Kris Polly: Tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Federico Errázuriz: My background as an agricultural engineer has allowed me to work in the agricultural and food sector for more than 14 years, both in the public and private sectors. During President Sebastián Piñera’s first term, I took up the challenge of working with the subsecretary of agriculture in managing the ministerial program, after which I was named subdirector of the Agricultural and Livestock Service (Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero). After the various challenges I took up during my time in government, I continued my career in the private sector, until the opportunity to be the executive secretary of the CNR motivated me to return to the public sector and work in the highly interesting field of water.

Kris Polly: Tell us about the CNR.

Federico Errázuriz: The CNR is a service of the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture that was created in 1975. Its objective is to guarantee the expansion and improvement of the country’s irrigated land and to be the public agency charged with coordinating and supervising government investment in irrigation in this country. From 1985 onward, its duties have included the administration of Law 18.450, known as the Irrigation Law, which supports the construction and repair of irrigation and drainage facilities and promotes the efficient use of water in agricultural development, which allows for the improvement of farmers’ productivity. The CNR is composed of the Council of Ministers, formed by the ministers of agriculture, economy, budget, public works, and social development, and presided over by the minister of agriculture.

Kris Polly: Please give us an overview of irrigation in Chile.

Federico Errázuriz visits a greenhouse in Los Ríos region, Chile. Photo courtesy of the CNR.

Federico Errázuriz: Today we are experiencing a major drought that, in some areas of the country, has lasted for
more than 10 years. While some regions have experienced interludes—for example in 2016, which was a rainy year in the Norte Chico region—we are in general experiencing a clear climatic change that cannot be ignored. In this context, we are working hard on two priorities: technical modernization and the accumulation of irrigation water. In Chile, there are 300,000 farms, of which 285,000 are small producers. That is to say that more than 95 percent of the farmers in the country are small farmers; we cannot be indifferent to them. The CNR supports them in two ways: first, by subsidizing projects through Law 18.450, and second, by helping them directly through the Small-Scale Agriculture Program, which tries to reduce some of the barriers that prevent them from accessing the CNR.

It is important to emphasize the role of water users’ organizations (organizaciones de usuarios de agua, OUAs), which in our institutional structure are the organizations that manage water and water infrastructure. With this in mind, I would like to emphasize that strengthening them is a key goal of this administration’s policies. They have shown themselves capable of excellent work, as proven by their performance during the worst years of the drought, in particular in the north of Chile. This work in some cases permitted the operation of the reservoirs and the provision of water during the most critical periods.

Kris Polly: What are the most important challenges Chilean farmers face?

Federico Errázuriz. Photo courtesy of the CNR.

Federico Errázuriz: Today, the principal challenge the farmers and the OUAs face is efficiently managing the irrigation water used for their properties and crops. Because of climate change and water scarcity, it is necessary to provide them with adequate infrastructure and facilities and with technological innovation that will enable a better use of water, whether in its application to crops or in its administration and management on the organization level.

Kris Polly: How does the CNR finance irrigation projects?

Federico Errázuriz: The CNR administers Law 18.450, an instrument that, through a system of competitions based on a variety of objective variables indicated by the law, provides subsidies of up to 90 percent of the cost of irrigation and drainage projects. Successful projects must both meet the technical and legal criteria specified in the law and be selected in the competition, and the subsidies are provided only after the projects are constructed. Our 2019 budget is a historic high of 67 billion Chilean pesos (approximately US$100.9 million) which will be distributed through a series of competitions for farmers categorized according to their socioeconomic status and that of their organizations and for projects in categories like technical modernization or civil works.

Kris Polly: Where does the initial funding for the irrigation projects come from?

Federico Errázuriz: The contractors put up the initial funding and have 2 years to complete the project. Once the project
is approved and completed, only then will the CNR provide funding.

Kris Polly: How does this financing system differ from those of other countries?

Federico Errázuriz: One of principal strengths of our system, in terms of making a good use of government resources, is that the subsidies that the CNR gives out only take effect once the project is finished and fully operational. This guarantees that the investment is actually realized. Another interesting thing from the point of view of public policy is that private entities compete on how much they contribute—that is, applicants who request a smaller subsidy score more highly in the competition.

Kris Polly: What results has the CNR achieved in recent years?

Federico Errázuriz: The agency has given out irrigation subsidies totaling close to US$100 million per year. In 2018 alone, that allowed us to benefit some 30,000 people, support close to 1,500 projects, and modernize the technology on around 10,000 hectares of land. Throughout its history, the CNR has issued irrigation funds of about US$1.2 billion, subsidizing 26,000 projects for around 600,000 beneficiaries and modernizing more than 330,000 hectares. I would like to underline that we work to strengthen the OUAs, which are a fundamental part of the institutional structure of water management in our country.

Federico Errázuriz on a visit to irrigated farmers in the Los Ríos region. Photo courtesy of the CNR.

Kris Polly: What is your vision for the future?

Federico Errázuriz: My vision is to build a modern agricultural sector, especially in relation to irrigation, with modernized systems on the property level that permit an efficient application of water and with strengthened organizations that use tools like telemetry and remote management. What is most important is that they have the tools that let them professionalize their decisionmaking.

Federico Errázuriz is executive secretary of the Chilean National Irrigation Commission.
For more information about the CNR, visit cnr.gob.cl.