Chile drought causing water shortage amid virus crisis

A dried area of the Penuelas Lake in Valparaiso, Chile, in January. A severe drought is hitting the country's central area, making local communities more vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A dried area of the Penuelas Lake in Valparaiso, Chile, in January. A severe drought is hitting the country's central area, making local communities more vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CHILE • With historically low river flows and reservoirs running dry due to drought, people in central Chile have found themselves particularly vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Years of resource exploitation and lax legislation have allowed most reservoirs in that part of the country to run dry.

"There are now 400,000 families, nearly 1.5 million people approximately, whose supply of 50 litres of water a day depends on tankers," Mr Rodrigo Mundaca, spokesman for the Movement for the Defence of Water, the Earth and the Protection of the Environment, told Agence France-Presse.

One of the main pieces of advice to protect people against the coronavirus is regular hand washing.

"Living without water is awful," said Ms Dilma Castillo, who lives with her children on one of the hills around El Melon, a town of 22,000 close to the seaside resort of Valparaiso, whose river has dried up.

"I'm very distressed because it's humiliating to live in these conditions," she added.

In the greater Santiago area and in Valparaiso, rainfall last year was almost 80 per cent below the previous record low. In the northern region of Coquimbo, it was down 90 per cent. Water tankers serve many homes, whose inhabitants come out to fill drums.

The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting "once more that where there is a model of the private appropriation of water... this condition does not guarantee people's human right to water and further weakens communities," said Mr Mundaca.

Chilean law states that water is a resource for public use, but it turned over almost the entirety of the right to exploit the resource to the private sector.

In the Penuelas lake, an hour from Santiago, much of its bed appears cracked by the sun.

"I've been coming here to fish for 20 years. At first we used to catch a lot... now we don't catch anything," Mr Tomas Ruiz told AFP from the banks of what was left of the lake.

Mr Matias Asun, the director of Greenpeace-Chile, said last week that the government of President Sebastian Pinera must "guarantee that there are no second-class citizens without the basics to protect themselves from Covid-19".

"Having soap is useless if there's not enough water to wash with it," he added.

Chile last Saturday reported more than 3,700 coronavirus cases and 22 deaths.

Private exploitation of water was not a problem in times of abundance, as was the case until recently. But the drought has brought a furious reaction from communities that have run out of water in a country that saw an outbreak of social unrest last October, one that subsided only when social distancing measures were imposed.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2020, with the headline 'Chile drought causing water shortage amid virus crisis'. Subscribe