By Caroline Fouvet
Between 2014 and 2015, Chile moved from 62nd position into the top 10 countries most affected by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. For Chileans though, the heavy downpours that flooded the country in February 2017, during what was supposed to be the dry season, were a far more tangible example of the country’s vulnerability. The human cost quickly rose to 3 deaths and 19 missing, while 1.5 million households were left without access to drinking water.
The rains caused rivers to overflow in mountain valleys around the capital city of Santiago, isolating over 350 people. Mudslides generated extreme levels of turbidity in rivers, disrupting the water supply services and forcing authorities to put water restrictions in placefor over 6.5 million people. The city’s inhabitants were forced to fetch water at designated supply points, shops and restaurants had to remain closed, and tourist resorts were evacuated.
While the 2017 floods were particularly severe, they cannot be considered isolated. Chile had already faced severe floods in April 2016 and exceptional rainfall in the northern part of the Atacama Region at the end of March 2015. It has become increasingly clear that Chile’s climate impacts are having sustained impacts on the country’s environment, society and economy. The country’s flora and fauna, for instance, are becoming increasingly endangered by the unpredictable, and unseasonal weather patterns. The situation has become so severe that the head of Chilean environmental organisation Acción Ecológica, Mariano Rendon, has warned that Chile faces a “massive environmental catastrophe”.
For the country’s businesses water shortages have caused major disruption. The agriculture and the mining sector, Chile’s major industries, have faced particular difficult times. In response mining companies have built their own desalination plants to provide a reliable water supply to process copper concentrate from milled rock. In 2015, the flooding forced the state-owned company Codelco to halt its operations for a week, leading to estimated losses of 6,500 tons of refined copper.
Action to adapt to climate change is required at all levels of government and society in Chile. The country ratified the Paris Agreement in September 2016 and published its National Action Plan on Climate Change (PANCC) 2017-2022, which establishes a public policy instrument to integrating climate change into policymaking. Its adaptation component covers data gathering to better assess the country’s vulnerabilities to climate change and capacity building to ensure better preparedness to manage risk. Such planning is long overdue however, and the challenge for the country now is to translate these plans into action.