By Paula Díaz Levi
Despite the original abundance of its natural resources, mismanagement has led Chile to a serious water deficit. This is demonstrated by three emblematic cases where the major protagonists are fossil waters, avocados and rain forests.
Chile is a land of contrasts. In the north lies one of the most arid deserts on the planet, the central zone hosts one of the five Mediterranean ecosystems of the world and the south is marked by rain and lush forests.
The local economy depends on natural resources, but its population faces a high number of water conflicts. No matter where they live, this reality hits all Chileans.
How can we explain the universality of this situation?
More than 400,000 people in Chile lack access to drinking water.
A recent government report for the 2018-19 season revealed a critical scenario: At the national level, there is a water deficit of between 40 and 70 percent compared to the average, except for two regions where some precipitation temporarily alleviated the shortfall.
According to the report, sufficient water for human consumption is guaranteed for at least two years. However, that doesn’t consider localities with a severe deficit level, such as the province of Petorca, located in the Valparaíso region, in the central zone.
For Cristián Frêne, a hydrologist at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, the main cause is “the accelerated change in land use, occurring in the last 150 years, that replaced the native forest with agricultural monocultures of wheat, fruit trees, among others, and by plantations of exotic species such as pine and eucalyptus.
“On the other hand, climate change has modified the regime of precipitation and generated increases of temperature,” Frêne said.
Although Petorca has suffered a water shortage for years, its situation exploded this year due to the impact generated by avocado monoculture.
The popular fruit, known as the “green gold,” even triggered an international controversy after some media accused Chilean producers of illegally diverting river water for irrigation, leaving the communities without this essential element.
“The current legal and normative frame in Chile is weak. For this reason, it allows water overexploitation and doesn’t consider the additive effects of diverse pollution sources,” warns Frêne, who is also the coordinator of the Chilean Long-Term Socio-ecological Research.
The treasure of the desert
Imagine how indispensable water is in one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world.
The Atacama Desert is one of the most emblematic places in northern Chile and has become an important tourist and scientific destination.
The overexploitation of its water and the impact of climate change threaten this area and the future of 1.5 million people. This motivated creation of the “Tarapacá Manifest,” an urgent call from a group of researchers and 18 Chilean science prizewinners to protect the treasure of this natural heritage.
“The level of extraction exceeds the recovery capacity of water sources. In the Tarapacá Manifest we advocate that desert water should be treated as a non-renewable resource,” says Claudio Latorre, an academic at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
Indeed, the current levels of extraction for industrial, rural, urban and domestic purposes are unsustainable, especially considering water sources that are restricted to fossil groundwaters, accumulated over millennia, and to intermittent rains in the Andes.
For example, human impact is causing the desiccation and pollution of wetlands, salt flats and oases, as well as the impoverishment and potential disappearance of ecosystems and species, such as flamingos and an endemic tree, tamarugo.
Rainy places without water
The Chiloé Archipelago, in the south of Chile, is enmeshed in a curious paradox. Many communities suffer a summer water deficit despite being in a territory where rainfall is abundant and usually exceeds 2,000 mm annually. In 2016, more than 7,500 families faced the lack of water.
Frêne, the hydrologist who has worked for 10 years in watershed management in southern Chile, explains that the scarcity of water for human consumption directly relates to mismanagement of ecosystems such as forests and peat bogs that are natural ‘”sponges”’ that capture and store rainwater.
Forestry, agricultural and livestock activities are altering the landscape and preventing the natural storage of water in the soil, affecting the proper functioning of ecosystems, local socio-economic development and its inhabitants’ quality of life, he says.
For this reason, Frêne leads the Participatory Drinking Water Network, an initiative that aims to solve the problem of water supply in Catruman, a rural town in Chiloé, through construction of a potable water network, hydro-climatic monitoring and a plan to organize productive activities in the micro-basin where the water source originates.
The project includes implementation of technologies for water purification, like an artificial wetland to treat wastewater. This kind of treatment is a priority, especially because more than 80 percent of the wastewater generated worldwide is discharged into the seas or rivers without being treated or recycled, according to the United Nations.
The specialists agree that the commitment of the Chilean government, the private sector and citizens is key to reverse water conflicts. It’s also necessary to promote a “water culture” based on responsible management of resources through contributions and solutions provided by nature itself.
Latorre says, “It is essential to have water management policies. It is inconceivable that there is no system in the north that takes advantage, for example, of grey water which could irrigate gardens, instead of using fossil water 20,000 years old.
“The Tarapacá Manifest is a reflection that aims to avoid serious problems for future generation,” Latorre says.
Frêne agrees: “We must become aware of the critical situation of water in Chile and in the world, and demand that local authorities systematically address this problem, not only with emergency measures. We need innovative and long-term solutions to make efficient use of water on an individual, local and territorial scale.”
Paula Díaz Levi participated recently in a Knight Center for Environmental Journalism workshop for Chilean journalists.