Chile is projected to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the face of worsening global warming. Each year for more than a decade, rainfall has been below average in the central areas of the country. Record high temperatures and more frequent heatwaves have further exacerbated the situation, leading to what experts refer to as a megadrought. But the water crisis in Chile is nothing new. In fact, it began over a decade ago and scientists attribute around 25% of its severity to human-induced climate change.
By the end of 2021, which went down in history for being the fourth driest year on record, more than half of Chile’s 19 million people lived in areas suffering from “severe water scarcity”.
The country’s record-breaking drought has officially entered its thirteenth year and the citation is only getting worse. In April 2022, the government announced an unprecedented water rationing plan for the capital Santiago, home to nearly 6 million people. Experts predict that water availability in the city will fall 40% by 2070.
Just about 50 kilometres south of the capital was once Laguna de Aculeo. The lake used to be one of the country’s main tourist destinations and an extremely important source of environmental, social, and economic services to local communities, until it dried completely in 2018 as a result of climate change, the sale of water rights, as well as population growth. Meanwhile, rural communities in Chile’s central and northern areas rely on emergency tankers’ deliveries as their only way to access drinking water.
Water availability in Chile has dropped down to 10%-37% over the past 30 years, and it is estimated to plummet further in the next few decades as the effects of climate change worsen, with availability in northern and central Chile expected to be halved by 2060.
Chile Water Crisis: Causes and Effects
1. Climate Change
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), out of all South American countries, Chile experienced by far the worst increase in drought severity between 2010 and 2019.
Image 1: Meteorological Drought in South America, 2010-2019
Experts say that human-induced climate change is to blame for at least 25% of the drought’s severity. In the last decade, the already arid country has experienced a significant rise in temperatures as well as a drastic reduction in precipitation. In the capital, rainfall dropped significantly in recent years. According to Chile’s Meteorological Service, in the first half of 2021, Santiago experienced just 88 millimetres of rainfall, a drastic decrease from the 180mm the year prior and an average amount of 252mm.
Warming temperatures have also caused glaciers to retreat. The Andean glaciers, the melting water of which fed rivers and lakes below and provided vital resources for communities in and around the mountain range for hundreds of years, have shrunk 98% this century. This massive loss of ice poses a threat to water supplies and agriculture in Chile and neighbouring Bolivia but inevitably have also global repercussions.
13 years of relentless drought have completely transformed the country, drying out reservoirs that until a few decades ago were the main source of water in the country. The
Peñuelas reservoir used to be the main source of water for the city of Valparaiso in Central Chile. It used to hold enough water to fill 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools; now, the level has decreased so much that it is enough to fill just two pools. Similarly, La Paloma – South America’s largest irrigation reservoir, only has about 20% of water left.
2. Water Privatisation
But climate change is not the only factor to blame for the country’s water shortage. Chile has one of the world’s most privatised systems of water allocation and its constitution specifically says that water rights are treated as private property.
Water privatisation in Chile began in 1981 under General Pinochet, who significantly reduced state oversight while strengthening private water rights and adopting a market-based allocation system. Even following Pinochet’s political demise in 1990, the system remains intact. In 1998, the country passed legislation allowing international firms to acquire the nation’s water utilities, favouring market monopolisation.
This system allows agricultural, energy, and mining companies to buy and sell water allocations as if they were company stocks. But while this has favoured a flourishing export economy by turning Chile into a major exporter of products from copper to avocado and wine, millions of people have been left behind. Farmers across the country have seen years of work go up in smoke as the drought has slowly consumed their harvest and irreversibly compromised crops such as potatoes, rice, maize, beans, fruit trees, and vineyards. Meanwhile, hundreds of rural communities that have lost everything had no choice but to sell their land and move to urban centres.
Chile’s economy – the largest in South America by per-capita GDP – is based on three very water-thirsty industries: mining, agriculture, and forestry. Supported by the private rights system, the latter – which accounts for just 3% of the country’s GDP – has access to nearly 60% of Chile’s water resources. Another 37% is allocated to the agricultural sector, leaving only about 2% for human consumption.
What Does it Take to End Chile’s Water Crisis?
“The drought is no longer an emergency. It turned into a structural change”, former Chilean Agriculture Minister Maria Emilia Undurraga said. “We need to establish a different relationship with water because it’s become a scarce resource.”
Pablo García-Chevesich, a Chilean hydrologist working at the University of Arizona, described water as a “national security issue”.
Following the anti-inequality protests that exploded in Chile in 2019, leading party leaders signed an accord to work towards replacing the current constitution drawn up during Pinochet’s dictatorship.
In March 2022, Chile elected its youngest and most liberal president in decades. Gabriel Boric pledged to take a stronger stance in the fight against climate change, emphasising the protection and restoration of hydrological cycles. In a bid to alleviate the water crisis, Boric appointed Maisa Rojas – a renowned climate scientist – as his environment minister.
“Global warming is a symptom of the way that our civilisation has developed over the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution,” Rojas said. “That has had two consequences: one is obviously the degradation of our physical environment, but the other is structural inequality which, in the case of Chile, is the basis of the social unrest that started in 2019 – and led to the writing of the new constitution.”
The new draft was agreed upon in May 2022 after months of negotiations and it will be put to a referendum on 4 September in which all Chileans aged 18 or older must vote. Besides guaranteeing a long list of rights and freedoms such as free higher education and gender parity, the new constitution “will make the state responsible for preventing, adapting to and mitigating climate change”. The text goes even further in revising the nation’s relationship with its resources, stating that water is a “natural common good” that must be protected in all its states and phases, as well as declaring it essential for life and nature.
The key to solving Chile’s systematic water crisis is better water governance. “The efficient use of the water we have, modernisation of production processes, technology, reusing water, producing more with less water and on less land are all crucial”, Ulrike Broscheck from Chile Foundation said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
However, tackling climate change is also equally crucial if the country hopes to restore its most precious resource. Like many other nations around the world, Chile has committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and has already started a massive scale-up of solar and wind energy while banning the installation of new coal-fired power plants and committing to close half of its operating plants by 2025.
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