Chilean city caught in perfect storm of mega drought and mining

A small strip of land separating northern and central Chile, Choapa is a province that has undergone dramatic changes in recent years as a result of the country’s 13-year mega-drought. Its nearly 100,000 residents face increasing devastation from desertification, and the multi-faceted water crisis has left the largest city dependent on surrounding cities for its drinking water supply.

Illapel is the hilly capital of Choapa, home to about 32,000 people. In the far south of the Coquimbo region, the city is located in the narrowest part of Chile, where less than 100 kilometers separate the eastern border with Argentina from the Pacific Ocean to the west.

6.8%

When the rain shortage in Illapel reached 83.2% in early July, the El Bato reservoir that supplies the city with power shrank to just 6.8% of its capacity, exacerbating the water struggle in the region.

The city is surrounded by parched yellow hills with little vegetation, which contrast with the green patches of avocado plantations. Rivers are little more than timid streams, a far cry from the streams of past years, and especially those of rainy seasons. Problems with access to water are obvious at a glance.

Various economic activities coincide in Illapel. Small-scale family farming and goat farming are common, but it is mining that has historically played the most important role in the local economy, as made clear by the town’s motto: Guts mea aureawhich means “my entrails are of gold”.

A lifetime of mining has left its mark on the city. According to the Chilean National Geology and Mining Service, Illapel is the Chilean community with the third most mining waste – the large deposits of waste, often toxic, left behind after mining activities, which affect inhabitants, ecosystems and water resources. Illapel is home to 65 residues in total.

In addition to the long-standing risk of contamination from mining, the increasingly severe drought is turning hitherto fertile land into desert and increasing risks to the residents of Illapel. The situation has become so extreme that Aguas del Valle, the company responsible for water management in the area, has more than once raised the prospect of rationing drinking water.

Read more: Chile wants to guarantee water rights during severe drought

“The drought situation in Choapa and the entire Coquimbo region is critical,” said Andrés Nazer, regional manager of Aguas del Valle. He reported that, based on data from early July, the rainfall deficit in Illapel was 83.2% and that the El Bato reservoir, about 30 km north of the city, had only 6.8% of its capacity.

In 2021, the company had to build a 20-kilometer pipeline from Salamanca, a town east of Illapel, to transport water to the provincial capital to avoid rationing. The pipeline reportedly cost 6 billion Chilean pesos (US$6.6 million).

For José Luis Núñez, councilor of the municipality of Illapel, the problem has existed for a long time. “The water crisis in our municipality has been going on for a long time, at least ten years,” he told Diálogo Chino. He adds that the problem may have worsened without the plans of the authorities, who have given the city “a little more breathing room”.

According to a report from the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, an organization based in the national capital of Santiago, a notable decline in recorded rainfall has been observed since 2010, along with the warmest decade in the past 100 years.

“The temporal persistence and spatial extent of the current drought is extraordinary in the historical record. This event, which we have termed a megadrought, also has no analogues in the past millennium, according to climate reconstructions based on tree ring growth,” the report said.

Unequal Distribution

The drought has had serious consequences for various activities in Illapel, such as family farming and beekeeping. José Povea has lived here most of his life. Today he lives in a rural part of the city and works as a beekeeper, a job that has been affected by the lack of water.

“The mega-drought of the past 13 years has led to the dramatic decline of native flora, the bee’s main food. It is a death blow for most beekeepers. River flows have been reduced to practically zero,” says Povea, who remembers the days when the river was a thriving living space for its inhabitants.

Cities like Illapel are an example of locations where mismanagement, overuse and climate change create a perfect storm, where even human consumption of water is not guaranteed.

The privatization and monopolization of water by agricultural and mining companies has led to an unfair distribution of water

This was confirmed by a study of the Coquimbo region published in March this year. The study, which looked at the challenges of water resources during economic growth, found that activities such as mining were the “main causes” of the decline in water supplies.

“Human activities and overuse are rapidly depleting the region’s water resources (especially groundwater), and the problem is compounded by a changing climate and decreasing precipitation,” says the study, conducted by a team of Chilean researchers.

The study also outlines challenges for the region. “Results show that the main cause of this worrying situation is over-consumption, and there is an urgent need to know (model) how to adequately quantify water availability, as well as current use, before allowing new water withdrawals,” the authors conclude.

These results expose an unfair reality for residents, in which economic activities have been prioritized over guaranteeing water for human consumption – an unfair reality made even more apparent when the area was surveyed on July 6 by the National Directorate General of Water.

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