SANTIAGO – Lack of drinking water, disappearing lakes, heat records: every year seems worse than the one before when it comes to drought in Chile. Few countries will get hit by a water deficit as hard as Chile in the decades to come. The country should prepare for a new future: one without water.
The harsh situation Chile is facing couldn’t be portrayed more graphic. Lake Aculeo, one hour from capital Santiago, was once a popular summer destination for those looking for a relaxed day of swimming and sailing. Those who visit what’s left of the lake in Paine that once had four times the surface of New York’s Central Park will be shocked.
It has completely dried up in less than 10 years. The before-and-after photos and the satellite images of the lake throughout the last decade tell the story of Chile. Because what happened to Lake Aculeo could happen anywhere.
Record After Record
The Ministry of Public Works released a report this month, showing the extreme situation Chile is dealing with. This year promises to become another record-breaking one: in the central-northern area the decrease in rainfall exceeded 80 percent.
2018 was one of the driest years in half a century for Santiago, the period between 2010 and 2015 was labeled a mega drought, and 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.
According to a World Resources Institute investigation, Chile will be among the most water-stressed countries in the world by 2040. Record after record and pessimistic investigations all convey the same message: Chile is drying up and facing extreme water stress.
The destructive effects of drought came to light during the mega drought. Although weather phenomena such as La Niña played a role, a large part could be contributed to climate change. According to a government report focusing on Central Chile, such long periods without rain damage everything from the economy, nature and vegetation and the quantity and quality of the drinking water.
In the years of the mega drought “the average flow rate deficit in rivers in Coquimbo and Valparaíso regions was as high as 70 percent. The quantity of water stored in drinking water reservoirs was at historical lows for over three years. Satellite images showed a reduction in vegetation growth along coastal areas and interior valleys, from Coquimbo Region to O’Higgins Region.”
According to the same report, “the number of large-scale forest fires (more than 200 hectares) from Valparaíso to La Araucanía regions increased by 27 percent compared to the historical average. Another impact of drought was the constant lengthening of the forest fire season. During the last decade, the forest fire season expanded to cover the entire 12 months of the year (from July 1st to June 30th of the following year).”
Chile’s Future: Solutions In The Obstacles
Although the report focused on the mega drought, the government quickly realized that drought was to stay. Then president Michelle Bachelet vowed in 2015 that the government would invest US $170 million “to access underground water sources, build and upgrade canals and improve irrigation systems.” But is that enough?
Climate change can’t be stopped. Rain isn’t coming back. Drought is here to stay. These realities still seem hard to understand for a society in which investment and economy have always come first. Even after the destructive mega drought, many state officials, the private sector and citizens saw such droughts as extraordinary, something transient.
But if Chile wants to prepare the best way possible for permanent water stress that will hit the country harder than any forest fire, it should look to these three groups.
Economically important sectors such as mining and the agriculture both suffer from and contribute to the droughts in Chile. To regulate the private sector and its use of water, the Water Code should be changed. Access to and consumption of clean water is a human right. Throughout Chile, dozens of conflicts between citizens and companies over the rights of water access continue to boil.
The bureaucracy is another obstacle on the way to a working reform of the Water Code. At the moment, various agencies, government bodies, public-private companies and organizations want their say on Chile’s water resources. One administrative entity should control this entire situation.
But the biggest change is needed in mentality, society and culture. Awareness campaigns to raise awareness among Chilean citizens, a more focused aid program for the more vulnerable people in the country and involving different actors when looking for solutions: Chile needs to change itself to prepare for a new future.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and made appearances on BBC World Services and ABC News during major events in Chile.