As reservoirs shrink and farms expand, Chile’s agriculture at risk – by Rosalind Adams and Sarah Tory (Santiago Times – September 1, 2013) [Part 2 of 3] [Chile]

Part II of a three-part series on Chile’s water crisis: A combination of severe drought, climate change and overuse leaves farmers struggling to compete for a dwindling resource.

Last year the river in Petorca ran dry, leaving a dusty brown ditch running through the once fertile valley in Chile’s Valparaíso Region, home to 40 percent of the country’s avocado production.

The area, forming part of the “norte-chico” zone that starts north of Santiago and runs all the way to the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, contains some of Chile’s most important agriculture pockets. It’s also one of the driest parts of the country.

Here, almost all the rain falls over a short three month period from June to August. Over the last decade, though, the rainy season has delivered only the occasional shower. That has left the farmland in the North thirstier than ever.

In the province of Petorca, currently in the midst of a seven-year dry spell, reports of widespread “water robbing” have emerged as desperate farmers construct illegal wells to access what little remains of the water available in underground aquifers.

“This drought has affected us enormously,” Jimeini Zamora, a farmer from Petorca, told The Santiago Times. “There’s barely enough water to give my animals, let alone plant my crops.”

In February, President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency in six of the Valparaíso Region’s municipalities, five of which are in the province of Petorca.

Drought hits the smallest farms hardest since they don’t have as much land to plant extra crops as insurance against extreme weather events or seasons with low yields. But it’s not just farmers who are impacted. Agriculture employs nearly twenty-five percent of Chile’s labor force and with less water in irrigation dykes, farmers are planting less. That means less produce to sell, but also less fruit to pick and pack, slashing jobs.

For Petorca’s farmers, the water crisis is particularly acute. The valley has no reservoirs, and therefore lacks the local regulation that occurs through committees, known as Juntas de Vigilancia, which allocate water from the reservoir for those who own water rights.

According to Chile’s water law, the General Water Directorate (DGA) grants water rights as long as water is available in a river or lake. With the river now dry, farmers must rely on groundwater sources that are much harder to regulate because few studies have measured how much the underground aquifers hold.

Pablo Alvárez, a professor of agronomy at the Universidad de La Serena in Ovalle, who studies water resources in the area, said this lack of regulation means many of Petorca’s farmers have a winner-takes-all attitude toward water.

Even Zamora conceded greed plays a large part in the current crisis.

“They stripped the hills,” Zamora lamented, referring to the relentless expansion that took place on Petorca’s farms over the last few decades, sucking the river dry and with it, the land’s productivity.

In Petorca, the amount of irrigated land has more than doubled since 1997, with the majority of that expansion occurring in water-intensive avocado cultivation.

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