It is not even summer, but temperatures in the Metropolitan region have already surpassed 30 ̊C (86 F), and Valparaíso has already declared a Red Alert in response to forest fires. But not only the central regions of Chile are suffering from rising temperatures. In this series, Chile Today takes a look at climate change in Chile and the effects on Chileans, the economy and nature.
Only those who are ignorant or are quixotically clinging to an ideology can deny climate change. Those who analyze the data or simply watch the news, know that climate change is real.
And in Chile, a country of extremes, climate change, and especially rising temperatures, affect every single region. It is therefore no surprise that weather institutes forecast an extremely hot summer and that Chileans are now preparing for the related natural disasters.
But Chile should also start taking more permanent measures. Because if climate change is really happening, who knows how many of those extremely hot summers will follow?
The northern regions & water scarcity
The Atacama desert is already one of the driest in the world. You could ask, how much damage can an increase in temperatures do to this desolate landscape? The answer is, a lot.
A lot of communes in the north already struggle with water scarcity. According to an Universidad de Desarrollo investigation, “there are insufficient resources to recover environmental, domestic and industrial requirements.”
The mining sector in the north currently demands the most (64%), but the agricultural sector also demands a significant amount (19%). Better management of water is recommended to battle the increasing water scarcity in the region.
Another big problem, especially for the agricultural sector and the indigenous peoples of the north, is the privatization of water. Large communities of indigenous people lost access to water after neoliberal economists during the Pinochet era privatized water and made people register so-called “water rights” to ensure their access for commercial purposes.
The water that is left for farmers, indigenous people and locals who need it to survive, is getting scarcer by the week. Chile has been suffering over the last couple of years from a large drought. In the northern regions, but also in the central and even southern regions of Chile, there have been reports about entire lakes disappearing. As temperatures rise, more water sources are bound to disappear in the north.
Economists have already said that “water is the new gold”, but for Chileans under a neoliberal government that makes the future even more uncertain.
Ironically, simply getting more rain won’t necessarily help the region either. The north stands in a delicate balance. In fact, just over a week ago, Nature published an article confirming that recent unprecedented rains decimated surface microbial communities in the Atacama Desert.
The central regions & contamination
You don’t need to be a doctor or professor to feel how an increase in temperatures is affecting the quality of life in the central regions. Santiago, where seven million plus Chileans live, sits in a valley. While cities such as Valparaíso, Concepción and Arica regularly receive cool, fresh air from sea breezes, polluted air produced in Santiago blankets parts of the city as a gauzy, brown cloud. Health alerts during summer time are common.
In other central cities, such as Valparaíso, other problems are detected. Houses built illegally, houses made from wood, and houses built on hills are easily consumed by fires, and this weekend a Red Alert was issued after forest fires threatened Valparaíso and neighboring municipalities.
— Chile Today News (@ChileTodayNews) November 19, 2018
Going back to Santiago, forest fires and rising sea levels aren’t the main concerns of the city. Rising temperatures and climate change are estimated to affect the city mostly on three fronts. The first one is the same problem the northern regions are facing: water scarcity. In the next 50 years, investigators estimate that the availability of drinking water in Santiago will fall 40%.
But the demand for water will also increase. As people from northern regions are facing a water scarcity that can be life threatening, they will move to the central regions to pursue better opportunities. These people will be located in the more vulnerable communes of Santiago – exactly those parts of the city where the effects of a rise in temperature will be most acute.
Research shows that Santiago must hurry with creating so-called “green spaces” where people can cool down, and that urban planning and water conservation is needed. The city itself is already taking measures to tackle the pollution problems: cars from before 2011 are often denied access to the city.
The southern regions & forest fires
The southern regions, the green regions, with hills full of trees. All beautiful, but as proved during the fires of 2017, this idealistic landscape can quickly turn into a burning hell.
The forest fires of 2017 are described as the worst in Chile´s modern history. Several countries sent planes, firefighters and medics to help fight the destructive fires.
Driving through the southern regions, one year later, hills are still black and filled with burned trees like the back of a porcupine. And local governments in the south have warned that this year the same could happen.
A lot of the economic activity in the south focuses on forestry. Trees are being cut and sold to Asia or Europe for furniture. Especially native trees are popular. But those native trees fulfill an important role in keeping the land fertile and wet. The roots of the trees maintain water, and, as these trees are being cut, forestry companies often replace the native trees with Eucalyptus.
The Eucalyptus tree grows fast and is thus commercially attractive for companies. But the Eucalyptus trees are known for sucking all available water out of the ground, causing erosion and drought.
The dry Eucalyptus trees in the south, in combination with the aggressive commercialism of forestry companies, who constructed their sites too close to each other (firefighters recommend so-called breathing spaces, so fires can’t spread) caused large areas of the south to burn last summer.
One cigarette could be enough to destroy a region. It is that vulnerability, that is exemplary for the situation Chile is facing, this year and for the years to come.
This article is part of a series on the effects of climate change in Chile. The next parts will be on the effects on the economy and on Chile´s nature.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.