Extreme weather hits Chile: World's driest desert floods

The arid landscape of Chile's Atacama desert on Jan 28. Since then, rainfall in the Andes has led to torrents of water pouring into the desert.
The arid landscape of Chile's Atacama desert on Jan 28. Since then, rainfall in the Andes has led to torrents of water pouring into the desert.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SANTIAGO • The world's driest desert is flooding and some of the planet's wettest woodlands are burning.

Welcome to summer in Chile.

Rainfall high up in the Andes mountains has led to torrents of water pouring into the Atacama desert below, sweeping away houses.

Meanwhile in the south, blistering temperatures have fuelled forest fires, leading the government to declare some regions a disaster area.

President Sebastian Pinera declared a "zone of emergency" in northern Chile last Friday after heavy rain devastated the country's El Loa province.

Flooding caused six deaths and destroyed nearly 100 homes, the National Emergency Office said on Saturday. Alerts for heavy precipitation were in effect in Arica, Parinacota and Tarapaca.

The disasters are part of a pattern of increasingly extreme weather in the country that stretches for 4,270km along South America's south-west coast.

The capital, Santiago, has not received its average annual rainfall in a decade, while temperatures in the city beat the previous record by a whole degree Celsius last month. It was the third time in three years the city has set a record high.


"Chile needs to be thinking about how to adapt to climate change, as it has such an isolated climate that makes it more vulnerable to droughts," said Professor Park Williams, a hydroclimatologist at Columbia University in New York.

"For the last several decades, temperatures have risen and precipitation has declined in central Chile, making it more susceptible to wildfires."

In the south, more than 600 forest fires are raging through 9,500ha of land, an increase in burnt areas from the year before. Compounding the problem are dense plantations of pine and eucalyptus for the forestry industry.

In the north, three people have died due to the downpour and 37,000 in the town of Calama were without tap water for four days. More than a hundred homes are damaged in the nearby tourist resort of San Pedro de Atacama.

The storms have also affected state-owned copper miner Codelco and Freeport McMoran, which operate mines near Calama. Operations at some facilities were slowly resuming on Saturday.

After returning from a trip to see the fire damage in the south, Mr Pinera travelled north to see the floods. Strong to moderate thunderstorms were expected to continue yesterday, according to Chile's weather service Meteochile.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2019, with the headline 'Extreme weather hits Chile: World's driest desert floods'. Subscribe