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Heavy rains in Santiago highlight water shortage issues in Latin America

. Feb 09, 2021
santiago rain water shortage Flooded street in Santiago following intense rains. Photo: Pablo Rogat/Shutterstock

To compound the misery of the coronavirus pandemic, Latin America was also battered by climate disasters throughout 2020. In Central America, the worst hurricane season on record caused hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. Weather conditions and human interference saw 27 percent of Brazil’s massive Pantanal wetlands destroyed by flames, while Paraguay endured its worst drought in half a century.

And the climate chaos shows no signs of letting up in 2021. At the end of January, the Chilean capital of Santiago recorded the highest rainfall in a single day for 88 years, causing damage across the city.

</p> <p>According to Chile&#8217;s national weather service, the capital recorded 31.4 millimeters of rain on January 30, breaking the all-time record for a single day in January. Climatologists from the University of Santiago say the previous record dated back to 1933, when 22.4 mm of rain fell in one day.&nbsp;</p> <center> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="es" dir="ltr"><a href="https://twitter.com/WeatherEnChile?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WeatherEnChile</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/WeatherStgoRM?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WeatherStgoRM</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/EspinosaMeteo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EspinosaMeteo</a> la oficial marco mas, pero ese fue mi registro aca cerca de Santa Rita en Pirque 🥳🥳🥳 <a href="https://t.co/VtA2LaEPE4">pic.twitter.com/VtA2LaEPE4</a></p>&mdash; Feña Azul (@Ferazulcris) <a href="https://twitter.com/Ferazulcris/status/1356028807933800453?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 31, 2021</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> </center> <p>Since the rains began on January 29, Chile’s National Office of Emergency (Onemi) — a government agency responsible for natural disasters — reported that more than 520 people were displaced, as five houses were destroyed and at least another 37 were severely damaged. Infrastructure was also affected. At the beginning of February, almost 65,000 homes were left without electricity or internet.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, for authorities, the most startling part of the heavy rains was the massive water shortage in the city, ironically as unprecedented levels of precipitation fell from the sky.&nbsp;</p> <p>At least 38 of Greater Santiago&#8217;s 52 municipal districts (or <em>comunas</em>) suffered some form of interruption to their water supplies after storms dirtied the Maipo and Mapocho rivers, which frame the city&#8217;s southern and western limits. Furthermore, landslides around the city blocked roads and caused power cuts, which, in turn, interrupted water collection and supply systems.</p> <p>According to Eduardo Giansante, a professor of water engineering at the São Paulo-based Mackenzie Presbyterian University, while an <em>increase</em> of rains causing a shortage of water may sound oxymoronic, it is actually quite easy to understand.</p> <p>“It seems counterintuitive, but it isn&#8217;t. This happens in several countries,<a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/03/12/sao-paulo-chaos-rainfall/"> Brazil included</a>. When it rains a lot, river levels increase. When they burst their banks, water collection and pumping systems fail. Add that to the energy shortage, and the whole structure collapses,” he tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>In a press conference, Chilean utility company Aguas Andinas said that around 1.3 million people could be affected by supply cuts at the beginning of the month. While operations in the river will be “gradually normalized” over the coming days, the firm said it will remain on high alert.</p> <center> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="es" dir="ltr">Avanza el verano y se multiplican la caída de árboles en comuna Santiago con y sin lluvia. Todo indica falta de riego y una política municipal integral de cuidado del arbolado urbano.<br>Menos cemento, más tierra, más sombra, más árboles! <a href="https://t.co/Se9B6leWXf">pic.twitter.com/Se9B6leWXf</a></p>&mdash; Jose Osorio (@pepeosorioc) <a href="https://twitter.com/pepeosorioc/status/1357033630506360834?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">February 3, 2021</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> </center> <h2>Investment against water shortages&nbsp;</h2> <p>While the recent rain is seen as an atypical event, Chile has suffered from water shortages for some time now, and local authorities are seeking to mount a proactive response to the problem.</p> <p>In 2020, engineers from Aguas Andinas installed water tanks in the small town of Pirque, to the south of Santiago, to provide a water supply in emergency climate situations. The system, which cost USD 105 million to implement, was used for the first time during the recent storms.</p> <p>The infrastructure built in Pirque increased the autonomy of the city&#8217;s water supply system from 34 to 48 hours and is part of Aguas Andinas&#8217; plan to prepare for future crises, which includes boosting the use of treated wastewater to save expenses and increase sustainability.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>And it is vitally important that these projects are economically sound, as the International Monetary Fund predicts Chile will record a 6-percent GDP drop for 2020. In a time of economic recovery, the country cannot bear water and electricity shortages.&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, the construction of disaster-proof water distribution systems might not even be enough to mitigate the increased frequency of extreme climate events in Latin America. Mr. Giansante explains that new legislation will be required in the region, as seasonal weather events have become increasingly aggressive.</p> <p>“Latin American countries, such as Chile, need to invest in preventive legislation and infrastructure. We currently have hydraulic structures that are able to receive rains that happen once every 100 years. The problem is that, with climate change, these ‘unusual’ rains end up becoming more frequent. We will see more record-setting rains in the future.&#8221;

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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