Historic drought turns Chilean lake into a desert

STORY: Once the size of 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, the water left in central Chile’s Peñuelas reservoir now only fills two…

Local resident Amanda Carrasco is alarmed.

"It’s disgraceful. We have to beg God to send us water.”

Amid an historic 13-year drought brought on by global shifts in climate patterns, the huge expanse of dried and cracked earth that was once the lakebed is littered with fish skeletons and desperate animals searching for water…

The situation has led Chile’s capital Santiago to make unprecedented plans for potential water rationing.

Twenty years ago this reservoir was the main source of water for Valparaiso, a city of over one million people today.

The reservoir needs rainfall – once reliable in winter but now at historic lows, that’s according to Jose Luis Murillo, general manager of ESVAL, the company that supplies Valparaiso with water.

“Basically what we have is just a puddle of water, actually mud, and it is completely unusable. (flash) We are talking about a Dante-esque situation from the perspective of the drought.”

Rainfall levels have slumped in the mountainous South American nation – higher air temperatures have meant snow in the Andes, once a key store of meltwater, is not compacting, melts faster, or turns straight to vapor.

Behind the issue, academic studies have found, is a global shift in climate patterns – rising global sea temperatures block coastal storms that have typically recharged aquifers and packed the Andes with snow.

Alex Godoy-Faúndez is the director of the Sustainability Research Centre at the University for Development.

“The water situation in the country is critical because today we are seeing the impacts that were predicted 20 and 30 years ago in regards to a decrease in rainfall, an increase in the drought periods that will affect the productive systems.”

Segundo Aballay, an animal breeder in the Chilean village of Montenegro, is praying change comes soon.

“If it doesn't rain this year we will be left with nothing to do, there is no alternative because the animals are getting weaker and are dying every day.”

A 2019 study in the International Journal of Climatology that analyzed Chile's drought from 2010 to 2018 said shifting weather events could ease the drought in future, but much would depend on the trajectory of human emissions impacting climate.

Unfortunately for agriculture workers like Aballay, researchers at the University of Chile predict the country will have 30% less water over the next 30 years, based on mathematical models and historic data.

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