A punishing, decade-long drought in Chile has gone from bad to worse following a scorching July, a month which typically brings midwinter weather showering the capital Santiago in rain and snow.
But a lack of precipitation has left the towering and typically snowcapped Andes above the city mostly bare, reservoir levels low, and farm fields parched. The scenes, government officials say, are clear evidence of global warming.
On Tuesday, a central Santiago weather station had recorded just 78mm (3 inches) of rainfall so far this year compared to last year’s 180mm and an average amount of 252mm, according to Chile’s Meteorological Service.
On Tuesday, Science Minister Andres Couve said that the steady decline in water reserves because of climate change was now a “national priority”.
He added that the government was addressing the crisis by investing in water conservation and storage, creating a post for an undersecretary of water and establishing a scientist working group on water management and a climate change observatory.
“We already have overwhelming evidence, and it is climatic evidence,” he said. “We see a very significant decrease in rainfall, and that is generating water shortages.”
On Monday, United Nations climate scientists warned that extreme heatwaves, which not long ago struck once every 50 years, are now to be expected once per decade.
Droughts and downpours are also becoming more frequent, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report said, and humans are “unequivocally” to blame through greenhouse gas emissions.
Couve said Chile, a long thin nation with the world’s driest deserts at its north, glaciers, forests and wetlands throughout and the Antarctic at its south, had bountiful proof of climate change in action.
“The scientific evidence is there, but also the weather events are happening with a frequency and intensity that makes it very easy for people to see,” he said.
Some scientists and politicians in Chile are warning of growing, and potentially irreversible, water shortages in the central region whose Mediterranean climate has made it home to vineyards and farms, as well as one-third of its population in Santiago, the country’s economic engine.
Two rivers that provide Santiago with water – the Mapocho and the Maipo – are drier than they were in 2019, the driest year in Chile’s history, Public Works Minister Alfredo Moreno said, prompting regulators to clamp down on water use and seek alternative sources.
Chile’s utility companies have invested heavily in new infrastructure to avoid the arrival of “Day Zero” – the day the taps run dry, a threat that has prompted significant water restrictions in Cape Town, South Africa, and Chennai, India, in recent years.