Illapel: Chilean city caught in perfect storm of mega-drought and mining

The city typifies Chile’s water struggles, compounded by climate change and economic activities. Its hopes for change may lie with the country’s constitutional reform

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In February 2021, residents of Illapel staged a “caravan for water” in the drought-stricken city, protesting that water demands of agricultural and mining activities have been prioritised over drinking water (Image: Michael Lieberherr Pacheco / Revista Pasto Seco)

A small strip of land separating north and central Chile, Choapa is a province that has seen dramatic changes in recent years due to the country’s 13-year mega-drought. Its nearly 100,000 inhabitants face increasing encroachment from desertification, and the multifaceted water crisis has left its biggest city dependent on surrounding towns for its drinking water supply.

Illapel is the hilly capital of Choapa, and home to about 32,000 people. In the far south of the Coquimbo region, the city is situated in the narrowest part of Chile, where less than 100 kilometres separate the eastern border with Argentina from the Pacific Ocean to the west.

6.8%

With the rainfall deficit in Illapel reaching 83.2% in early July, the El Bato reservoir that supplies the city shrunk to just 6.8% of its capacity, further exacerbating the region’s water struggles

The city is surrounded by parched yellow hills with little vegetation, which contrast with the green patches of avocado plantations. Rivers are no more than timid streams, a far cry from the flows of years gone by, and especially those of rainy seasons. Problems with water access are obvious at a single glance.

Different economic activities coincide in Illapel. Small-scale family agriculture and goat breeding are common, but it is mining that has historically played the most important role in the local economy, as made clear by the town’s motto: Viscera mea aurea, meaning “my innards are golden”.

A lifetime of mining has left its mark on the city. According to Chile’s National Geology and Mining Service, Illapel is the Chilean community with the third most mining tailings – the large deposits of wastes, often toxic, left behind after mining activity, which impact inhabitants, ecosystems and water resources. Illapel is home to 65 tailings in total.

On top of the long-standing risk of contamination from mining, the ever more serious drought is turning hitherto fertile land to desert, and compounding risks to Illapel residents. The situation has grown so extreme that Aguas del Valle, the company in charge of water management in the area, has raised the prospect of rationing of drinking water more than once.

Read more: Chile seeks to guarantee water rights amid severe drought

“The drought situation in Choapa and the entire Coquimbo Region is critical,” said Andrés Nazer, regional manager of Aguas del Valle. He reported that, based on data from early July, the rainfall deficit in Illapel reached 83.2%, and that the El Bato reservoir, around 30 km north of the city, was at only 6.8% of its capacity.

In 2021, the company had to build a 20-kilometre pipeline from Salamanca, a town to the east of Illapel, carrying water to the provincial capital to avoid rationing. The pipeline reportedly cost 6 billion Chilean pesos (US$6.6 million).

For José Luis Núñez, councillor of the Illapel commune, the problem is long-standing. “The water crisis in our commune has been dragging on for a long time, at least 10 years,” he told Diálogo Chino. He adds that the problem may have worsened without the authorities’ plans, which have given the city “a little more breathing space”.

Since 2010, Chile has seen a notable drop in the amount of rainfall recorded, accompanied by the warmest decade in the last 100 years, according to a report by the Centre for Climate and Resilience Research, an organisation based in the national capital, Santiago.

“The temporal persistence and spatial extent of the current drought is extraordinary in the historical record. This event, which we have termed a mega-drought, also has no analogues in the last millennium, according to climate reconstructions based on tree-ring growth,” the report says.

Uneven distribution

The drought has had serious consequences for various activities in Illapel, such as family farming and beekeeping. José Povea has lived here for most of his life. Today he lives in a rural area of the city and works as a beekeeper, a task that has been hit by the lack of water.

“The mega-drought of the last 13 years has caused the dramatic decline of the native flora, the bee’s main food. It has been a lethal blow to most beekeepers. River flows have been reduced to practically zero,” says Povea, who recalls the times when the river was a thriving, living space for its inhabitants.

Cities like Illapel stand as an example of locations where mismanagement, overuse and climate change generate a perfect storm, where not even human consumption of water is guaranteed.

The privatisation and monopolisation of water by agricultural and mining companies have led to an unfair distribution of water

This was confirmed by a study of the Coquimbo region published in March this year. The research, which looked at challenges of water resources during economic growth, found that activities such as mining have been the “main causes” of the decrease in water supply.

“Human activities and overuse are rapidly depleting water resources (especially groundwater) in the region, and the problem is further complicated by a changing climate and decreasing precipitation,” says the study, carried out by a team of Chilean researchers.

The research also sets out challenges for the region. “Results show that the main cause of this concerning situation is excessive consumption, and there is an urgent need to know (model) how to adequately quantify water availability, as well as current uses, before authorising new water withdrawals,” its authors conclude.

These results expose an unfair reality for the inhabitants, in which economic activities have been prioritised over guaranteeing water for human consumption – an unfair reality that became even clearer as the territory was declared a water scarcity zone on 6 July by the national level Directorate General of Water.

Flows on the Illapel River, a tributary of the Choapa River, have reduced significantly as the mega-drought continues (Image: Michael Lieberherr Pacheco / Revista Pasto Seco)

The need for change is highlighted by Ivanna Olivares, a history teacher, environmental activist and, until a few weeks ago, one of the people tasked with writing the draft of Chile’s new constitution. “Decades of mega-drought and the privatisation and monopolisation of water by agricultural and mining companies have led to an unfair distribution of water, putting Illapel at risk,” she said.

For Olivares, it was the inequitable distribution of water that led to the need to transfer water from another city to supply Illapel’s demand. “Seventy percent of the water in Illapel is destined for the agro-industrial sector, 25% for mining and only 5% for human consumption. There is no limit on the rights to use water from the river,” she explained.

Illapel councillor José Luis Núñez also shares the idea of inequality in water distribution in the area. “Clearly the underlying problem, beyond the drought, is also the distribution of available water and how industries are more important than human consumption. The fact that a mining company has access to the water it wants while communities do not speaks of disproportionality,” he said.

The priority given to mining for water use is not the only inequity perceived by the inhabitants. The area also has extensive avocado plantations – a notoriously water-intensive activity – and a proliferation of illegal wells. In February 2021, a “Caravan for Water” protest was held, with massive participation and hundreds of slogans expressed on signs.

The hope for change

After a draft was filed in early July, a debate on constitutional reform is now underway in Chile, ahead of a plebiscite in September. A majority vote in favour would pave the way for the entirely new constitution, but its rejection would maintain the current constitution, drafted during the country’s dictatorship and reformed during the democratic era.

The new text establishes that the state must protect water in all its states and phases, always prioritising the human right to water and sanitation. A national water agency would be created for this purpose, as well as “basin councils”, which are responsible for administration of water resources.

For Olivares, a member of the Chilean Constituent Convention for District Five, which includes Illapel, the new constitution would generate multiple changes in the management of water resources.

“The human right to water, sanitation and the balance of ecosystems will always prevail,” she said. “To ensure that this mandate is fulfilled, a process of redistribution of basin flows will have to be carried out temporarily to guarantee the priority uses established in the new constitution.”

Olivares clarifies that the redistribution will not be a universal change and will not affect small farmers, community drinking water managers and indigenous communities. “With this proposal we will finally restore the course of the rivers in the basins, and enshrine de facto and de jure human access to water,” she adds.

The plebiscite is scheduled for 4 September, with latest polls indicating that the new constitution is likely to be rejected. Should this be the case, Chilean president Gabriel Boric has already said he would start the process for constitutional reform all over again.