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Hot water for Chile's slums, courtesy of the sun

A public housing project aims to improve the quality of life of Chile's poor, while also lowering emissions.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Jacquelin Marin has no running hot water at home. For a while, she had no real home at all. But soon she'll have both, with the sun heating water for her showers.

Marin and her neighbors are part of a pilot program to install solar water heaters in the houses of low-income families. For Chile — a country with stark economic inequality and few fossil fuels — it's a way to help the poor while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Chile's drastically different climate zones mean it's hard to devise any nationwide energy solution. For now the program will begin in three disparate locations: 125 houses in the capital Santiago; 68 houses in Curanilahue, a rainy former coal-mining town 370 miles to the south; and 115 houses in Combarbala, 330 miles north in shrubby desert.

“I never had a water heater before, a husband who could install one, nor the money to fuel it,” said 39-year-old Marin.

In 2002, Marin joined a land takeover on the edge of a shantytown called Vista Hermosa, located in the poor western periphery of Santiago. Riot police, water cannon tanks and tear gas were not enough to dissuade the determined squatters. They stayed, constructing their homes with whatever materials they could purchase or find.

Marin and her neighbors from the shantytown went on to create a housing committee to change their flimsy abodes into real houses. They saved up, organized the neighborhood, staged protests and badgered authorities, until finally 125 families were awarded subsidies from the Chilean housing ministry to start a new housing project.

“Only 20 of the applicants were men,” said Leonardo Dujovne from the Housing Ministry. “All the rest were women.”

It was a long struggle and Marin, president of the housing committee Juntas Podemos (We Women Can), admits to fits of depression along the way, especially when they had to move their shacks down the road so construction could begin.

The squatters endured a prolonged lack of water and electricity at the new site, the cold of winter and rain leaking through tin roofs and flooding the neighborhood.

Some abandoned the project, moving back to swell the households of relatives as poor as themselves. Allegados, “added” relatives under the same roof, is a technical term in the overcrowded slums of Chile. Others, like Jacquelin, her husband and two children, stuck it out.

Today, Marin earns the minimum monthly wage of about $300 as the key keeper at the construction site of the 125 new homes that will go to as many families from Vista Hermosa. Her job is to ensure that fixtures and other finishes on the new homes stay put until she and her neighbors move in next April. “It’s like getting a brand new car,” she said, “and this one is a Mercedes!”