Chile is suffering what authorities call a “mega drought”. For over 11 years, the levels of rain are below normal and large parts of the country are suffering from lack of water. So far, it seems to be yet another crisis in Chile the government struggles to handle.
“The seriousness of this situation requires implementing new measures to those already executed and spreading a campaign that helps to become aware of the urgency of changing our way of consuming water.” It was late December 2019 when ministers Alfredo Moreno of Public Works and Antonio Walker of Agriculture presented a report about the immense drought their country is suffering.
“The year 2019 has been the year with the lowest rainfall in history since [the country started tracking rainfall],” said Minister Moreno. Minister Walker called the worst drought in the history of Chile “a silent earthquake.” The slight difference with an earthquake is that the current drought is a years-long disaster.
According to the Chilean meteorological service, the period between 2003 and 2014 was the driest decade in the last 150 years and the warmest ever recorded in the country. While 2018 was already one of the driest years in half a century, the rain that fell in Chile during 2019 was half the amount that fell in 2018, with an average rainfall deficit of 75%.
A study called Escenarios Hídricos 2030 stresses that the drought in Chile has already left about USD$620 million in economic losses and that 50,000 jobs are at risk. In the majority of the 194 communes in Chile, agricultural emergencies have been declared due to the drought.
Not only agricultural sectors suffer: the drought is an ecological disaster as nearly all rivers in the central and northern regions are suffering from historical low flows: the Mapocho river that runs through Santiago saw its flow decrease by 63% between November 2018 and November 2019.
The lack of water in Chile means also that drinking water reservoirs such as the El Yeso, Aromos, and Peñuelas reservoirs are storing only 21% of their total capacity.
Measures Against Drought
With a campaign entitled, “Let’s take care of the water,” the government is now trying to raise awareness in the country for the environmental crisis. Chileans are being encouraged to take less and shorter showers, while the government also announced it would invest over USD$140 million in technological solutions for the agricultural sector, the number one water consumer in Chile.
Another measure that currently is being investigated is the so-called “water highway” to battle the severe drought in northern and central Chile. Under this project, envisioned as two private initiatives, water from rivers in the southern regions would be transported to the north to supply municipalities and businesses. The plans face resistance, as opponents claim the south doesn’t have enough water for the entire country.
Desalination is another measure taken, and a logical one considering Chile’s lengthy coast. The idea is simple and used in countries throughout the world: water from the ocean gets pumped out, desalinized, and used as drinking water. However, it’s another measure with devastating side effects, as reported by The Guardian: salt pumped back from the desalination plant in the sea destroys marine life, meaning loss of income for fishermen, biodiversity, and other problems.
Who Owns The Water?
The biggest consumers of water in Chile are in the private sectors, logging and agricultural in particular, while the mining sector also requires lots of water.
Although water is arguably a basic human right, the use of water in Chile is privatized, meaning that companies have lifelong water concessions, while nearby communities suffer from drought.
To regulate the use of water, the Water Code must be changed, but such a change, which would give the authorities room to improve the distribution of water in Chile, is still only a remote possibility in Chile.
This week, for example, the Chilean Senate refused to define water as a public good in the framework of a reform of the current Constitution. Only 24 senators voted in favor, falling five votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority to approve such legislation. Opposing senators stressed that the private ownership of water in Chile “has always existed in current form.”
Whether that current form is the model Chile should stick with, is something that Chileans can vote on in April, in a referendum about a possible new Constitution. A Constitution that could give a country and its water the legal framework it needs to find solutions for a growing disaster.
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.