“We ask God for water”: the lost Chilean lake

The Penuelas reservoir in central Chile was the city of Valparaiso’s main source of water until 20 years ago, holding enough water for 38,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Now there is only water left for two pools.

A vast expanse of dried and cracked earth that was once the bottom of the lake is littered with fish skeletons and desperate animals searching for water.

Amid a historic 13-year drought, rainfall levels have plummeted in this South American nation nestled on the continent’s Pacific coast. Higher air temperatures have meant that snow in the Andes, once a major spring-summer meltwater reservoir, does not compact, melt faster, or turn directly to steam.

The drought has impacted mine production at the world’s largest copper producer, fueled tensions over water use for lithium extraction and agriculture, and prompted the capital, Santiago, to make unprecedented plans for possible water rationing.

Horses rest in the dry Aculeo Lagoon grounds at Paine


Segundo Aballay, a rancher, walks next to a water tank used for his animals


“We must ask God to send us water,” said Amanda Carrasco, who lives near Penuelas Reservoir and recalls fishing the waters for native Pejerrey fish. “I’ve never seen it like that before. There used to be less water, but not like it is now.”

The reservoir needs rain — once reliable in winter, but now at historic lows, said Jose Luis Murillo, general manager of Esval, the company that supplies water to Valparaiso.

“Basically, we just have a puddle,” he said, adding that the city now relies on rivers. “This is particularly significant considering that a few decades ago, the Penuelas Reservoir was the only source of water for the entire Valparaiso metropolitan area.”

A general view of almost dry Lake Penuelas in Valparaiso


An aerial view of the Olivares Glacier in the Andes


Scientific studies have found that behind the problem is a global shift in climate patterns that is exacerbating natural weather cycles.

Normally, winter low-pressure storms from the Pacific discharge precipitation over Chile, replenishing aquifers and filling the Andes with snow.

But the naturally occurring warming of the sea off the Chilean coast, which prevents storms from arriving, has been exacerbated by rising global sea temperatures, according to a global study on Sea Temperature and Precipitation Deficits. Ozone depletion and greenhouse gases in Antarctica, meanwhile, are exacerbating weather patterns that draw storms away from Chile, according to a study of variables affecting Antarctic weather.

Ranchers in Farellones, near the Andes


The nearly dried up Lake Penuelas in Valparaiso


water towers

Analysis of tree rings going back 400 years shows how rare the current drought is, said Duncan Christie, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience in Chile. It is absolutely unrivaled for duration or intensity.

He said this meant the Andes mountains – which he dubbed the country’s “water towers” – didn’t get a chance to refill, which in turn meant that with spring snowmelt there would be much less water to fill rivers, reservoirs and aquifers was available.

Miguel Lagos, a civil engineer and water specialist, traveled to measure snowpack near the Laguna Negra station in central Chile, 50 km east of Santiago — part of a process to estimate summer water supplies.

A sign reading “Zona de Pesca” (Fishing Area) hangs next to a pier on the former Aculeo Lagoon in Paine


A dead fish lies in the dry lake


“There was just nothing,” he told Reuters. “There were so few precipitation events and such warm conditions that the snow melted in the same winter.”

As the snow thickens, it forms new layers that help keep it colder for longer. But with warmer weather and less snowfall, Lagos said, the top layers of snow melted faster or turned directly to vapor, a process called sublimation.

A 2019 study in the International Journal of Climatology which analyzed drought in Chile from 2010 to 2018, said changing weather events could alleviate drought in the future, but much would depend on the trajectory of human emissions affecting climate.

Segundo Aballay, an animal breeder from the village of Montenegro, is praying for a change soon.

Segundo sits while giving water to his horses


Remains of trees at the dry Runge reservoir near Tiltil in Santiago


“If it doesn’t rain this year, we have nothing to do,” he said. “The animals are getting weaker and dying every day.”

Unfortunately for farm 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 historical data.

“What we call drought today will become normal,” Lagos said.

A pier structure stands on the dried-up former Aculeo Lagoon


On Segundo Aballay’s farm, a goat stands next to the inscription “Agua no potable water”.


At Laguna de Aculeo, another dry lake south of Santiago, local campground manager Francisco Martinez recalled hundreds of people coming to the area to take kayaks or swim in the water.

Now rusty piers and old boats lie in the barren landscape. An eerie island in the middle of the water rises above the dust.

“Now there is no water; this is a desert,” Martinez said. “The animals are dying and there is nothing left to do here in the lagoon.”

Photography by Ivan Alvarado and Ailen Diaz


https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/chile-lake-desert-climate-change-emergency-b2112705.html “We ask God for water”: the lost Chilean lake


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