Risks of both drought and flooding

Chile: Ongoing water crisis

From too much water to not enough, this critical resource presents unique challenges in the Metropolitan Region (MR) of Chile. The MR is the hub of the country’s bustling capital and nearly half of the Chilean population. A recent report by NRDC highlights water management solutions that address floods and droughts, two issues that are already taking a toll on communities in the region.

Chile’s drought is not showing any signs of ending. The region has experienced the driest decade in recorded history, and the MR is one of the most impacted areas. Loss of rain, compounded by high water demand, has led to an agricultural emergency declaration in 17 communes in the MR just this year. Part of the problem is that the region’s aquifers are being depleted at a faster rate than they recharge. And while reserves below the ground are being pumped dry, Chile’s rich glacial reserves that pepper the Andes mountain range in white are increasingly threatened by rising temperatures associated with climate change and human activity, including mining.

Scientists predict that by 2070, the glacier-fed Maipo basin, which supplies 80 percent of the region’s potable water, will experience a 40 percent reduction in water flow due to loss of precipitation and glacial retreat. Precipitation in the MR’s Andes mountains has fallen 3 cm every 10 years, according to the Chilean Antarctic Institute. This has contributed to 8.54 to 15.14 gigatons of glacial retreat—this would have been enough to supply all of Chile’s water needs for the next 14 years.

Southwest of Santiago, the dried-out Aculeo Lake has become a symbol of the region’s ostensibly endless drought. The etchings of a lake can be traced on the large, dry stretch of land, where less than five years ago an expansive and pristine lake drew tourists escaping the busy metropolis to camp and swim in the clear water.

Flooding is still a growing risk
Ironically, as the region grapples with a water-scarce future, Santiago is expected to see more floods every year. Urbanization coupled with loss of vegetation, and higher-than-average temperatures due to climate change leaves the MR increasingly exposed to floods. A mere 5 mm of rain in the outskirts of Santiago in 2017 caused catastrophic floods and mud and landslides, cutting water supply for over six million people in the MR and blocking four bridges, leaving over 1,000 people trapped on a mountainside.

Land use is also impacted by the region’s growing population. Forty percent of the country’s population already lives in the MR. In a business-as-usual scenario, the region’s population is expected to increase by around 20 percent by 2050, to 8.5 million.

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