Huasco River Basin (Chile)

Socioeconomic Development

According to the 2002 Census, 90% of the regional population is living in urban areas, which is a 10% increase compared to the census in 1992. Between 1992 and 2002, the Huasco province was showing a population growth of 0,3%, which is 1,2% below the national average (Pti-CORFO, 2008). More than 70% of the population is living in Vallenar city, which also inhabits the provincial administration.

Table: Population distribution of the Huasco province (Wagnitz, 2012).

Commune Population Male


Vallenar 48,040 23,284


Freirina 5,666 2,800


Huasco 7,945 3,999


Alto del Carmen 4,840 2,629


Huasco Province 66,491 32,712



In general, the Atacama region produces 1,8% of the Chilean national GDP. Traditionally, agriculture and fishing were the most important sectors in the valley, but since the discovery of rich deposits of gold, copper and silver, the mining sector is strongly developing, nowadays representing 40% of the Regional Domestic Product, but only 12% of local employment (Bitar et al., 2009).

According to recent studies (CASEN, 2006), the sectoral labor distribution is changing only little in comparison to the results of the 2002 census. Even though agriculture, mining and industry only represent 30% of employment, together they cover more than 90% of water consumption, which is why these sectors will be examined during this investigation. Agriculture Between 2002 and 2005, the agricultural sector in the Huasco valley was growing up to 5% annually, which is 1.4% above the national average. Currently, the surface associated with agricultural production only represents 0.7% (13,000 ha) of the total surface of the valley. Main economic pressures for farmers in the region are rising prices for cultivable land ($2 million/ha in 2004 to $5 million/ha in 2006) and high water rights prices ($2,5 million/right in 2006) (Pti, 2010). According to the 2007 agricultural census, main cultivated crop types in the valley are alfalfa (1830ha), olives (1670 ha) and wine grapes (1550 ha), representing nearly 60% of cultivated crop land.

Especially grapes (between Vallenar and Alto del Carmen) and olives (between Vallenar, Freirina and Huasco) are important crops in the region, since they are produced for international export (olive oil, table grapes), as well as for regional “Pisco” production (internationally known Chilean brandy). As in most arid regions, agriculture is pressured by limitations, such as water scarcity, water inefficiency, steadily rising energy cost, difficult financing of new projects as well as competition about work-force with other sectors (Pti, 2010).


The mining sector in Chile is one of the countries strongest economic pillars, representing a third of national government income. Main products in mining are copper, gold, silver, iron and coal. Mining can mainly be found in the Atacama Desert, where resources are most abundant. Because of stable governments and security, Chile has experienced an economic boom in the mining sector in the last 15 years, due to increasing investments from international companies.

In the Huasco watershed, we find a similar picture, since two huge international mining projects are just about to start their operation. One is the Pascua-Lama project of the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold S.A., and the other is the El Morro project, carried out by the Canadian mining company Goldcorp Inc. and the multinational New Gold Inc. Both companies acquired terrain for the extraction of gold, silver and copper in the basin. Furthermore, the state owned Compania Minera del Pacifico S.A. (CMP) is extracting iron. From these three big players, only 1 is using surface water.

Even though the market is dominated by big mining companies (mainly of foreign origin) a vast multitude of medium and small companies are operating in the valley (Pti-CORFO, 2008).


Currently, the agro-industrial mega project of Agrosuper S.A is the only branch of industry that also is a major water consumer. Not yet at full production (currently 6000 animals per day), it will soon be one of the biggest, if not the major, pork production sites in South-America, aiming to process nearly 500.000 tons of pork meat each year (Agrosuper, 2006). This development can literally be felt with all senses. 

This project will be one of the major individual water consumers. Additionally to water consumption, waste water issues are still not very clear and should be observed in more depth when the company comes to full production (Agrosuper, 2006).


References and further reading:

Agrosuper (2006) Declaracion de Impacto Ambiental - Modificación Proyecto Agroindustrial del Valle del Huasco: Planta Rendering, Planta, Vallenar. 

Aguilera, G., Pouilly, M. (2011) Iniciativa Agua y la Naturaleza (WANI), Vallenar, Huasco, Chile 

Bitar, S., Weisner, R., Atenas, M., Musalem, M., Zenteno, P., López, A., Mardones, C., et al. (2009) Análisis de Impacto Económico y Social de Anteproyecto de Normas Secundarias de Calidad - Cuenca Río Huasco, Santiago. 

Cepeda, J., Fiebig, M., Morales, H., Salas, S. (2004) Description of the Elqui River Basin, La Serena. 

DGA (2004) Cuenca del Rio Huasco: Diagnostico y clasificacion de los cursos y cuerpos de agua segun objectivos de calidad, p. 105. 

Fernández, J., Novoa, E., Córdova, A., Salvatierra, A., Sierra, C., Vásquez, C., Jimena, C., et al. (2008) Caracterización Textural de Suelos: Valle del Río Huasco, La Serena. 

Gonzáles Aravena, V. (2011) Embalse Santa Juana y la Administración de las Aguas de la Cuenca del Río Huasco, Vallenar. 

NSW (2010) Returning environmental flows to the Snowy River: An overview of water recovery, management and delivery of increased flows, Office, Sydney. 

Núnez, J., Cortés, A. (2011) Modelo Para la Gestion Hidrica e la Cuenca de Huasco: Evaluacion de Caudal Ambiental y Valoracion de Servicios Hidrologicos, La Serena, Chile. 

Núñez, J., Soto, G., Guitierrez, S., Barrera Martínez, L., Pizarro, I., & Wagnitz, P. (2012) Proyecto Desarrollo de un Modelo Para La Gestión Hídrica Sustentable del Valle del Huasco, Mediante la Evaluación de Caudales Ambientales y la Valoración Económica-Social de los Servicios Hidrológicos, Informe Final, La Serena, Chile. 

Pizarro Barraza, I. (2012) Geomorfologia Cuenca Huasco, La Serena. 

Pouilly, M., Aguilera, G. (2012) Evaluación preliminar de caudales ecológicos en la cuenca del río Huasco (Chile) mediante la simulación del hábitat físico del pejerrey Basilichthys microlepidotus y el camarón de río Cryphiops caementarius, Paris. 

Pti (2010) Agricultura en el valle del huasco, Vallenar. 

Pti-CORFO (2008) Plan Terretorial Estratégico en el àmbito Productivo en la Provincia de Huasco: Informe Final, Vallenar. 

Stehr, D., Álvarez, G., Chávez, A., Isensee, P., Canepa, B., Acevedo, J., Bórques, M., et al. (2006) Aplicación de Metodologías para Determinar la Eficiencia de Uso del Agua: Estudio de Caso en la Región de Coquimbo, Coquimbo: Gobierno Regional - Region de Coquimbo.  

Wagnitz, P. (2012) Cost-benefit analysis regarding environmental flow implementation in the semi-arid Huasco watershed, northern Chile, La Serena.  

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