The past decade has seen long-running drought conditions in Chile, with rainfall as much as 50 per cent below historical rates. Despite brief storms in early July – the first in more than two years to bring more than one inch of rain to the region – the drought shows no sign of relenting.
This has had severe impacts on agricultural production and has become a key cause of forest fires, as well as damaging the domestic copper industry which provides 19 per cent of government revenue. The Atacama desert in northern Chile, already recognised as one of the driest in the world, is now threatening to spread south, towards the seven million inhabitants of the capital, Santiago.
In June, Aarón Cavieres, Executive Director of CONAF, the National Forestry Corporation, announced to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) a plan to invest $250million (£160million) to replant 100,000 hectares of degraded land with native forest.
‘Some $1.5billion has been provided in recent years to recover lands, in areas like forestry, prairies, and agricultural lands,’ Cavieres said. ‘We are proposing goals that we will meet because we are moving in lines of work that reinforce the path to a sustainable forest and environmental sector.’
This follows an announcement from President Michelle Bachelet earlier this year that the government would be looking into building desalinisation plants, as well as investing $170million (£108million) to access underground water sources, build and upgrade canals and improve irrigation systems. ‘There is no choice but to assume that the lack of water resources is a reality that is here to stay,’ she declared.
In the short-term, residents of Santiago and central Chile will likely welcome the prospect of a strong El Niño event this year, due to the heavy rains which tend to arrive during such episodes.
‘This year’s El Niño could rival that of 1997–98, which was one of the strongest on record,’ reports AccuWeather Meteorologist Anthony Sagliani. ‘While El Niño is likely to have a positive impact on the drought, it is not likely to completely stop it moving forward during the next six to nine months.’
This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine