In Chile, Many Regard Climate Change As The Greatest External Threat

Jul 16, 2017
Originally published on July 16, 2017 8:03 am

Fernando Rojas is holding up a photograph of a pocket of countryside, between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, that has been his home, his livelihood, and his passion for all of his 74 years.

His picture shows a lake, brimming with water, in front of a range of hills that are silhouetted by the sun. In the foreground, by the water's edge, there's a small boat, ready to set sail. Next to that, there's a wooden jetty, jutting out into the waves.

You would hardly know that this image, taken in Chile just a few years ago, is of the same depleted landscape on which Rojas is now standing, grim-faced, puzzled and — he says — full of sadness.

Most of the water has gone. The jetty is marooned in a sea of mud and grass. Beside it, there is a new wire fence, erected to keep out horses and cattle that are grazing on the lake's bed. Some boats are still there, stored away under canvas.

What water is left in the lake is in the hazy distance — about half of a mile away, a languid puddle, less than 3 feet deep, fringed by weeds and white egrets.

The Laguna de Aculeo — as this lake's known — used to be a favorite retreat for many of the 7 million citizens of Chile's capital, Santiago, 45 miles to the north.

On weekends, they came to windsurf, sail and Jet Ski, and to enjoy the tranquility of a valley with almond orchards, vineyards, poplar groves and wood cabins. Before the water suddenly receded, lakeside villas sold for more than $500,000.

For much of his life, Rojas farmed around the lake, growing melons and corn. He says the lake, which depends entirely on rainfall, began to shrink about seven years ago, and "got lower and lower and lower."

The lake was roughly four times the size of New York's Central Park. Rojas used to motor across it in a small boat to buy groceries. That same journey is now a walk. Lakeside villa prices collapsed — "no one wants to buy them, if they are not beside the water," he remarks — and so have parts of the local economy.

Families "in penury"

Local people are "suffering [because] they depend on the water," says Claudio Mella, an orthopedic surgeon in Santiago, who owns one of the villas and has been coming to the lake with his family for 15 years. "We have a lot of good friends here, and many of them have some depression, some family problems."

Among those dependent on the lake is Oriana Lopez, who's 55. Her once-thriving windsurfing business has received no clients for about five years, she says. Her family is left "in penury," and must survive on her 97-year-old father's pension, plus whatever money her son can earn doing casual labor.

"It is pitiful to see the lake like this," Lopez says, as her dogs romp across what used to be the lake's bed. Many people have had to leave the area, because of the lack of jobs. She, however, will stay and struggle on.

"I was born and raised here," she says tearfully, "I love this land."

Chile has been through an unusually severe seven-year drought that hit the central and southern areas where most of its population of 17 million lives. The affected zone includes the Laguna de Aculeo.

"We have been calling it the mega-drought because it has been very extended in space and in time," says Maisa Rojas, a climatologist from the University of Chile. "We have seen this before, but never so widespread." Although there has been a recent increase in precipitation, scientists are not yet sure if the drought's over.

Studies are now underway investigating ways of saving the lake. "If nothing is done, it is possible the lake will dry out in a couple of years. It's on the edge," says Felipe Martin, a leading hydrologist who used to head the commission that develops Chile's water resource policy.

Martin is among those working on rescue plans. He says the lake lost some water after its aquifers were disrupted by Chile's 2010 earthquake. But drought is a major factor, and he blames that on climate change.

More than just drought

For Chile, the possible impact of climate change has now become an issue of profound concern on numerous fronts, from melting glaciers to conflicts over water rights between big agricultural businesses and small farmers.

"There is nobody who has not been affected by climate change, directly or indirectly, here in Chile," says Matias Asun, director of Greenpeace Chile.

Chile's Environment Minister, Marcelo Mena, cites "temperature anomalies" of 2 degrees Celsius in parts of Chile, and says there is "no space for climate denial because we see climate change threatening us in multiple shapes."

Mena points to a wave of disasters that has hit Chile recently, including deadly floods and landslides, and a giant "red tide" — when an algae bloom, fueled by unusually warm sea temperatures, wiped out millions of fish, including 20 percent of the salmon production.

In January — fed by drought conditions — the worst wildfires in Chile's history ripped across the landscape, destroying more than 2,300 square miles, including large areas of forests, and threatening some of the country's famous vineyards.

"When you see the desperation in people's eyes, and when you see things that you haven't seen before, that really makes you worry that this is really getting out of hand," Mena says.

"And when you see that some people are trying to deny the climate science, then ... you have to take your gloves off, and you have to be very blunt about the fact that we are facing a challenge that is like something we have never seen before."

Mena says most Chileans now regard climate change as their greatest external threat.

Proving that Chile's wave of catastrophes was caused by climate change is highly complex. You have to use modelling studies to show any given event would have not have happened, were it not for climate change, says climatologist Maisa Rojas.

"We haven't done any attribution studies for this, so I cannot say event[s] wouldn't have happened, if it weren't for climate change," she says. "But the climate context in which these events have occurred are very much what we'd expect from climate change."

Measures to mitigate

Chile's government is introducing a range of measures to help the country adapt to hotter, drier conditions — for example, better water conservation and fire prevention methods, and creating green spaces to help cool urban areas. To further raise awareness, there will be mandatory climate change classes in Chile's schools, from next year onward.

Chile's also rapidly expanding its use of renewable sources, which are expected to generate at least 80 percent of its energy by 2050. More than half the electricity used to power Santiago's subway system will soon come from the sun and the wind. The lion's share of this will be generated by a giant solar plant in Chile's Atacama Desert, using hundreds of thousands of solar panels covering an area the size of 370 football fields.

At the Laguna de Aculeo — the shrinking lake — residents wonder what they will do if the water never comes back.

Paulo Gutierrez quit a high-pressure job in information technology and telecoms in Santiago to move to the lake with his family in search of a more tranquil way of life. He set up a cafe and a bakery around the time the lake's water levels first began to drop. He is now is considering buying land further south, and moving there.

Gutierrez has moved beyond the debate over whether climate change is real; he believes Chile must now focus on figuring out how to adapt to it.

"We already know this thing is true, because we are suffering," he says. "Twenty years ago, it was a possibility. Right now, it's a reality."

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This summer, we are taking a deeper look at climate change and the profound effect it's having on people around the world. Today, we're going to Chile in South America. NPR's Philip Reeves visited a community whose landscape and livelihoods are undergoing a dramatic change.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Fernando Rojas has spent his life beside a big lake. He lives here, between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in a valley with vineyards and almond orchards and groves of poplar trees. It's a pocket of heaven. Or, rather, it was before something terrible started to happen.

FERNANDO ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rojas says about seven years ago, the lake began to shrink. It was quite large, roughly four times the size of New York's Central Park. Most of the water's gone.

ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rojas, who's 74, used to farm around here. He shows a photograph of when the lake was deep and full.

ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It was so beautiful in winter," he says. "You could see the snow on the hills reflected in the water."

The lake's called the Laguna de Aculeo. It's an hour's drive south of Chile's capital, Santiago. It was a big tourist area. City folk used to flock here at weekends to sail and windsurf and jet ski. What's left of the lake is now only good for paddling and walking.

All around me, for hundreds and hundreds of yards, all I could see is mud and horses and cattle which are grazing here. Just over there, about 300 or 400 yards away from where I am, there are these beautiful villas with manicured lawns and palm trees and balconies and pavilions. And each one has a little wooden jetty sticking out into what is now a sea of mud.

Claudio Mella's standing on his jetty at the bottom of the garden of his villa.

CLAUDIO MELLA: So, normally, this is a pier where we use a lot for sailing. I love to go sailing and windsurfing. Right now we are looking. There's no water here, and the lake is far, far away. In the morning, I walk there. It's about 800 meters.

REEVES: Mella's an orthopedic surgeon from Santiago who's been coming here with his family for years. He says what's happening to the lake is especially hard on the local community.

MELLA: They are suffering. They depend from the water. And we see them also - some sociological problems. We have a lot of good friends here, and many of them have some depression, some family problems.

ORIANA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Oriana Lopez is among those who depends on the water. She had a thriving windsurfing business. It's been five years since she saw her last client. When the water began to vanish, Lopez was left pretty much...

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...In penury. Lopez won't leave the lake, though.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I was born and raised here," she says. "I love this land."

Chile's endured a seven-year drought. This was unusually severe, says Maisa Rojas, a climatologist at the University of Chile who compiled a report on the drought.

MAISA ROJAS: We have been calling it the mega drought because it has been very extended in space and in time. We have seen this before - but never so widespread.

REEVES: The drought hit the south and center of Chile, where most of the 17 million population live. That's also where the lake is. Studies are underway exploring ways of saving the lake. Among those involved is a leading hydrologist, Felipe Martin, a former head of the commission that develops Chile's policy on water resources.

FELIPE MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Martin believes that if nothing's done soon, the lake could soon dry out completely in a couple of years. And that'll devastate the surrounding ecosystem. The lake depends entirely for its water on rainfall. Martin says it also lost some water when its aquifers were damaged by a big earthquake a few years back. But the drought's a crucial factor. And he blames that on climate change.

MARCELO MENA: We don't even deny. We actually teach climate change without any doubts.

REEVES: That is Chile's environment minister, Marcelo Mena. He says the government regards climate change as an issue of such importance that it's introducing mandatory climate change classes throughout Chile's schools.

MENA: There's no space for this climate denial because we see climate change threatening us in multiple shapes.

REEVES: Just look at the thermometer, says Mena.

MENA: We're talking about 1.1 degree being the global departure or anomaly of temperature for the last year. In Chile, most of our anomalies are upwards of 2 degrees. So, therefore, we've been, the last two years, facing extreme weather events that really have us very worried.

REEVES: Those extreme events include torrential rain that cause deadly floods and landslides, says Mena.



REEVES: This year, the world's TV screens filled with images of Chile's worst-ever wildfires. Fueled by drought, these burned 2,300 square miles of land, wiping out forests and entire towns. Chile's glaciers in the Andes are melting at an accelerated rate. And, says Mena, last year, a big chunk of Chile's salmon fisheries was destroyed by a giant algae bloom created by abnormal climatic conditions.

MENA: When you see things that you haven't seen before that really make you worry that this is really getting out of hand, and when you see that some people are trying to deny the climate science, then it's a moment in which you have to take the gloves off, and you have to be very blunt about the fact that we are facing a challenge that is like something we've never seen before.

REEVES: Chile's government is counterattacking on multiple fronts. It's trying to adapt to the changing climate, for example, by building reservoirs and creating green areas to cool down cities. Chile is also revolutionizing its approach to renewable energy, says climatologist Maisa Rojas.

ROJAS: Solar energy is going to be very big. We have wind. We have geothermal and tidal, et cetera. And very conservative projections say that renewable energies will represent 80 percent of the energy matrix by 2050.

REEVES: The metro system in Santiago, the capital, looks the same as any other cities. Soon, though, 60 percent of the energy powering it will come from solar and wind power. These changes are big. But how can anyone be certain that Chile's drought and other recent disasters were really caused by climate change? Rojas says to prove that, you have to show an event wouldn't have happened were it not for climate change by using modeling studies. We haven't done those, she says.

ROJAS: But the climatic context in which these events have occurred are very much like what we expect from climate change.

REEVES: Rojas is also expecting something else. She says studies show that Chile soon will very likely have even less precipitation. At the Laguna de Aculeo, that shrinking lake, residents wonder what they'll do if the water never comes back. Paulo Gutierrez quit a lucrative technology job to set up a cafe and a bakery here just around the time the water began to sink. Their neighborhood's called Little Venice. Now Gutierrez is considering moving on.

PAULO GUTIERREZ: A lot of people like me is thinking, buy land in the south of Chile because the climate change will take a little bit more to get there.

REEVES: Gutierrez has seen enough. He's done with the debate of whether climate change is real.

GUTIERREZ: Twenty years ago, it was a possibility. Right now it's a reality.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.