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Analysis: After 13 years of drought, will water rationing be the new normal in Chile?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The severe drought began in the country more than a decade ago. Lack of rainfall. High temperatures. These are some reasons that have caused many cities and towns, such as Petorca, Caburgua, Aculeo, or Peñuelas, to practically run out of water or show a significant decrease.

The phenomenon has set off alarms among the authorities, the population, academics, and scientists. Different studies show for certain that the situation is real and serious. Government estimates indicate a reduction in water availability at the national level of between 10% and 37% compared to 30 years ago.

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This is why water rationing has already begun in many areas of the country. One example is the El Melón sector in the commune of Nogales (Valparaíso Region), which will be without water for four hours a day.

Extreme droughts like the current one, “are a consequence of the superposition of both natural (sea temperature anomalies) and anthropogenic (climate change) factors (Photo internet reproduction)

The phenomenon is not isolated. It could extend to the Metropolitan Region. Will water rationing be the new normal in Chile?

So says Sebastián Vicuña, director of the UC Global Change Center. “I am not so afraid of rationing, but it also depends on where it is done. There are areas like El Melón or Petorca, which have lived for a long time with this situation, so rationing there seems a bit cruel. I think that rationing in certain parts is something that should be demanded”.

Specifically, Vicuña adds, what should be rationed is the non-basic use of water, such as water parks and gardens, water in swimming pools, washing cars, and sidewalks.

As a background, already in 2009 a study of the Observatorio de Ciudades UC 10 years ago, warned that 35% of the vegetation cover of private gardens in the metropolitan area of Santiago was grass with high water consumption, and 37% corresponded to trees or bushes, which demanded about 91 billion liters of water per year.

“More than a particular zone, it is a type of water use that should be prohibited when drought demands it. Coincidentally, this use tends to be concentrated in certain areas of the Metropolitan Region. Especially communes in the eastern sector.

This type of prohibition has been successfully applied in Sydney, Australia, and in California, United States, for example,” Vicuña adds. Cape Town, South Africa, was a city that suffered from water shortages. With a comprehensive plan, which included the authorities and citizens, it managed to overcome it.

The ultimate goal of this is to recover Chile’s water situation and avoid the so-called “Day Zero”, as almost happened in Cape Town, South Africa, when the African country was very close to running out of water. Today, due to a radical change, it is living a much more prosperous situation.

Raúl Cordero, climatologist at the University of Santiago, points out that at the urban level, the infrastructure and institutional framework of the central zone has been able to withstand a decade of drought that included extraordinarily dry years such as 2019 and 2021.

However, he warns, “this same infrastructure and institutional framework may not be enough to guarantee urban consumption during the next decade if the situation continues to deteriorate”.

At the rural level, the balance is much more negative. “Hundreds of thousands of people receive water for human consumption via water trucks, thousands of small farmers have lost their animals and crops, and migration from the areas hardest hit by the drought to the cities has been documented. Medium-term forecasts are not particularly encouraging for the central zone’s countryside,” states Cordero.

Recently, the Ministry of Public Works released the Water Situation Report and Summer 2022 forecast, which ratifies the complex situation. Chile completed 13 years of drought and 2021 was the fourth driest year in the country’s history since 1950, only surpassed by the droughts of 1968, 1998 and 2019.

Extreme droughts like the current one, “are a consequence of the superposition of both natural (sea temperature anomalies) and anthropogenic (climate change) factors.

“Pacific surface temperature anomalies seem to be influencing the drought. On the other hand, global warming favors frequent intense droughts. Since the 1980s, the central zone of Chile, as well as the central-southern zone, have lost about 1/3 of their average annual precipitation.”

“This drop has also increased the probability of hyper-arid years. This helps to understand that during 2019 and 2021 we have had extraordinarily dry winters,” argues Cordero.

Although in the medium term it is possible that Pacific surface temperature anomalies will cease to play an important role. “For central and south-central Chile, climate change will continue to push average annual precipitation downward,” explains the Usach climatologist.

Susana Mayer, director of Risk Prevention and Environmental Engineering at Universidad de Las Américas, Viña del Mar, points out that climate change has affected many countries and ours has not been exempt from this problem.

“As we know, we have had more than a decade of drought, and this has affected the country, especially the central zone. The impact has been felt constantly by those who work in agriculture and livestock. In the Valparaíso Region, important rivers are with little flow, such as the Aconcagua, which supplies many farmers along its course”.

Aculeo was a lagoon located in the commune of Paine, Maipo province, Metropolitan Region, Chile. Its total disappearance occurred on May 9, 2018.

It is not the first time that something like this happens in the country, something similar happened in the 1990s, 23 years ago already.

In what was considered the worst drought of the last 20 years, in November 1998, the Government of Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle decided to decree electricity rationing.

On June 12, 1999, the decree was published in the Official Gazette and was in force until August 31 of the same year. In total, 81 days.

On the future of the drought in Chile, Vicuña is sincere. “It is difficult to make predictions in the short term, we have been waiting for it to end for quite some time now and in the end, it depends on climate variability. One would hope that this variability signal would prevail and we would have a wetter year, but it hasn’t happened.”

Mayer considers that the inhabitants, in general, do not take the situation with the seriousness that is needed, “we have habits such as the misuse of water since in our country we had water and it was considered an almost infinite resource, this is why consumption has never been rationed, we do not ration the usual consumption on an individual basis”.

Rationing at the urban level can be avoided with efficiency improvements. Cordero explains that with watershed management, and eventually through infrastructure.

“We are not condemned in cities to experience rationing. The situation is different for rural dwellers. Many small towns, or small settlements, will most likely not be able to recover the water availability they had a few decades ago,” Cordero believes.

Camila Merino, mayor of Vitacura, also added that “they are going to have to ration water sooner or later if we do not adjust our consumption. Incidentally, she warned that the Mapocho River would not be an option for drawing water”.

According to the Chilean Meteorological Directorate (DMC), the last recorded rainy winter dates back to 2006, and from 2012 to the present, most of the territory has presented rainfall shortages.

During the last ten years, the central zone has shown sustained shortages in rainfall, registering in 2019, a deficit of 76% of what is considered a normal year. Today, the situation has not improved, the country’s water scenario is not promising.

The signal and the long-term trend “is that this type of situation will persist, especially in the central zone; it is not the same in all parts of the country. More or less, from the central-northern zone to the southern zone, there is a clear sign of reduced precipitation and increased temperatures, which obviously means that the availability of water will decrease”, considers the academic of the Catholic University.

“Although there is nothing to indicate that this year will be rainier, there is nothing to indicate the opposite. We are a bit blind in this respect. More conservatively, it is advisable to think that this situation will continue and act accordingly”, adds Vicuña.

Cordero states that one of the strategies to cope with water stress is to improve efficiency in the use of the increasingly scarce resource. “At the rural level, this implies the adoption of technified irrigation. At the urban level it implies controlling losses, which in the case of our sanitary facilities represent a percentage up to three times higher than the standards of developed countries”, he explains.

Mayer points out that water rationing, for the moment, is a solution, “but we must change our habits of domestic use and also in industry, we cannot continue to think of water as an inexhaustible resource, considering also that the drought has hit us for a long time, so water is already a scarce resource. Rationing is an extreme measure, which affects part of the population, as we are seeing now”.

Better efficiency also means not encouraging the waste or misuse of water by some users. Calls for voluntary responsible water use can be useful, says Cordero.

But a differentiated pricing policy that discourages excessive water use could also be adopted, along with municipal ordinances that limit the watering of parks and gardens to certain hours, as well as the adoption of native species as ornamentation in squares and gardens.

A recent report called “Megasequía: Diagnosis, impacts and proposals” by the Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP) also ratifies this scenario.

The document states that due to the country’s geography, characterized by low altitude coastal borders, arid, semi-arid, and forested areas, spaces prone to desertification, and urban areas with air pollution problems, Chile is considered highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, being even more affected because the economic and social activities carried out in the territory depend on water availability, obtained mainly from rainfall.

Every 30 years, Chile takes stock of the availability of its water resources. The General Directorate of Water (DGA) presents the state of the country in this matter. Its last update was made in 2021, and it did not bring good news, projecting water shortages of up to 50%.

The report anticipates water availability until 2060 in the country and projects that by 2030-2060, its availability in northern and central Chile could decrease by more than 50%.

Marcelo Mena, former Minister of the Environment, in an interview with Qué Pasa, said that when the authority calls for saving water consumption, which is necessary, the response from the public is not the best.

“Many people make fun because they say that there are other consumptions, agricultural consumption, mining consumption, and that we do not have to make any effort. But we look around and we realize that there are people who have very different water consumption.”

“We have a lot of effort to make and not let others make decisions that are our responsibility. These solutions have to be considered collectively and not expect others to do what is within our responsibility.”

As can be seen, the effects of climate change in Chile are notorious. Further proof of this is the 2020 Annual Environment Report issued by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), which revealed that the total number of heatwaves in the country increased dramatically between the months of November to March in the 2010/2011 and 2019/2020 seasons, going from 9 to 62.

The same report details that the highest annual absolute maximum temperature in the country increased markedly between 2015 and 2019. It is 41.1ºC recorded by the Maquehue Meteorological station in Temuco, while in 2015 the highest absolute annual temperature was 36.8ºC and was recorded at the Pudahuel station in Santiago.

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