CHIGUAYANTE, Chile—As the dark curtain descended, turning the blazing afternoon sun over the braided currents of the Bío Bío River into a burnt orange twilight, a firefighting helicopter with a gigantic bucket dangling below it emerged from the gloom and followed the river back toward the city of Concepcion.
Life in Chiguayante, across the river from the inferno, went on in a perverse, orange-filtered normal, but at the edge of the city, a crowd had assembled on the riverbank, black flakes of ash gently snowing down on them. Quietly anxious, they watched helicopters discharging the buckets of water filled in the river upon unseen fires behind the wall of smoke.
In the austral summer of 2023, the 13th year of a megadrought in Central Chile, over 425,000 hectares (1,050,197 acres) of forest burned, most of it in desiccated monoculture tree plantations of highly flammable eucalyptus and Monterey pine. The megafires were the latest outward manifestation of Central Chile’s intensifying climate crisis.
As of mid-February, the fires had killed at least 26 people, injured 2,000 more and destroyed more than 1,500 homes. Authorities believed a number of the more than 250 active fires burning in February were intentionally started and had arrested ten suspected arsonists. But climate, along with land and water management decisions, had set the stage for blazes to burn big.
Stretching 2,670 miles from north to south, Chile is the longest nation on earth. The narrow country is a seemingly endless series of micro-climates. The south is cool and wet. The far north has the driest non-polar desert on earth. Central Chile and the U.S. state of California can seem almost like clones, so similar are their Mediterranean climates, mountainous topography and sun-drenched farms fed by wells and distant snowmelt. Both are experiencing megadroughts, and there is a resonance to how the consequences of their lack of water manifest themselves.
“Two-thirds of the drought is because of the climate crisis,” said Fabrice Lambert of the Centre for Climate & Resilience Science. The other third, he says, is because of human mismanagement of water.
A couple of hours drive to the north, not even a drop of water stands in Laguna de Aculeo in Central Chile. Former islands stand as two humps rising above cracked, bone-dry earth. Not even grass grows where once there was a natural lake.
Laguna de Aculeo, once a popular area for fishing, boating and swimming just over an hour from Santiago, the nation’s capital, dried up completely in 2018 from the worst drought in 1,000 years. Now, even mature, drought-resistant trees are beginning to die. In Central Chile, even prickly-pear cacti are withering.
In addition to the warmer, drier climate, the policies of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 until 1990, still haunt Chile.
“From the total national wealth in Chile in 2021,” Statistsa writes, “80.4 percent belonged to the top ten percent group. Almost half of Chile’s wealth, 49.6 percent, was held by the top one percent. On the other hand, the bottom 50 percent had a negative wealth—their debts exceeded their assets by 0.6 percent.”
A plantation economic mindset still predominates here.
In the region of Bío Bío, aside from a small national park and a few scattered patches of indigenous forests, all the hills are clothed in vast, densely-packed monoculture tree plantations of highly combustible, non-native eucalyptus and Monterey pine.
These grew out of Pinochet’s Decree Law 701, introduced in the 1970s, which granted subsidies to private companies to promote the timber industry. State-owned plantations were privatized and large tracts of land ended up in the hands of powerful investor groups.
These thirsty, fast-growing trees mean profits, especially when planted cheek-to-jowl, but as they have matured, the dense stands are like cans of gasoline just awaiting a spark to explode with flames. It was not a question of if, but when, residents living adjacent to or surrounded by these drought-primed forests would lose their homes, or even their lives, to fast-moving, wind-driven wildfires.
On Feb. 3, 2023, Jose Fernandez Chavez, 53, and his partner, Luz Eliana Flores Asencio, 46, cowered on their property in the hills above Santa Juana, Bío Bío, as “tongues of flames” driven by a gale passed over their heads, incinerating their house along with the forest surrounding them.
“Our skin burnt, it was so hot, but we survived,” Chavez said. This was the second time since 2020 that fire consumed their home but spared their lives.
They have no insurance. “We have been able to build temporary shelters,” he said, gazing over at two large tents the couple live in, protected overhead by a screened-sided wooden structure.
“We have a little savings,” Chavez said. “Family and friends have helped out by buying some wood and roofing but we will not be able to rebuild the house until funding from the government comes.”
The Chilean government has promised one-time payments of 1.5 million Chilean pesos ($1,900 U.S.) to highly impacted families and half that for families that endured lesser impacts, along with “decent transitional housing,” with interior electricity, drinking water and sewage to “afectados” from the fires. Chavez and Asensio do not have sewer services. Their drinking water is delivered by truck.
Nights will soon become cold living in tents and cooking outside with winter coming on the mountain pass where they are living.
Several hours north, in the Petorca region, where it is naturally drier, large avocado plantations have grabbed up more land and water. The transformation, and troubles, began in the early ‘90s when avocado plantations, producing the water-intensive fruit primarily for export, supplanted many of the family farms that had raised food crops like beans, corn and potatoes in the area.
At their peak, plantation owners pushed avocado orchards onto steep hillsides that were previously only suitable for grazing goats, sheep and cows. Wells in the valley began to go dry, so those who could afford it dug deeper ones, leading seasonal rivers to run dry year round.
In the 1980s, children would swim in the Petorca River. Now that river is a dry arroyo that cuts like a jagged scar through the desiccated valley.
Brown, dead eucalyptus trees crowd the riverbanks while the drought continues. Last year, this region of Central Chile received more seasonal winter rains than it has in recent years but precipitation was still below the annual average.
At first, small, cash-strapped family farms began to run out of water, their wells running dry. Vegetables and fruit trees, avocados, began to wither. Many towns needed to enlist cistern trucks to deliver drinking water.
“Unfortunately, in the last decade there has been a perverse incentive for many municipalities. Instead of investing in infrastructure, [they] have allowed the creation of an industry of cistern trucks,” said Felipe Martin, former Executive Secretary of the National Irrigation Commission and current CEO of MAS, a consulting firm advising on sustainability for water and energy projects in Chile. “Many people have become involved in it because it is a very profitable business. This has led many people to lobby for the system to continue.
“If water can be delivered by cistern trucks, it can also be delivered through pipes,” Martin added. “The state has the resources to do this, but how does it get that water to users if the infrastructure does not exist?”
At the root of the problem, however, is the lack of rain, exacerbated by water mismanagement. Most rural families, with limited incomes, maintained wells roughly 42 feet deep. When the water table fell, well-funded plantations could afford to drill deeper to access water at a depth of nearly 200 feet, but most rural families could neither afford the expense of digging deeper wells nor the cost to purchase and run the gasoline-powered pumps needed to bring the water up.
Now even the deeper wells are beginning to run dry.
“I had to slaughter several sheep and cattle,” Roan Alfonso Vargo of Olmué, Valparaiso lamented.
“That field used to be planted,” he said, pointing to an overgrown, dried out plot of roughly 2.5 acres. His farm, without water, was no longer viable.
Pulling aside two panels of wood, he looked down a deep cylindrical well shaft. “Seco (dry),” he said. His well, 39 feet deep, was completely dry.
Vargo is a lucky one, though. He could afford to drill deeper, to 60 meters, to reach the groundwater, which is brought up using a gasoline-powered pump.
“It’s only enough water for our family, but not enough for the farm,” he concluded, with resignation.
Meanwhile, down in Bío Bío, Miguel Inzunza, 70, and Jose Garcia, 50, were busy erecting a wooden frame, the first step in rebuilding a cousin’s house that burned a week earlier in a wildfire, in Tomè, 20 miles north of Concepcion.
Pole-thin eucalyptus trees, some spaced less than the length of a tennis shoe apart, claustrophobically fringed the property. Plenty of fuel remained to regenerate a fire. Many of the blazes moved so fast that they simply singed the trees, leaving plenty of standing dead wood, often with browned leaves or pine needles still clinging to the branches, as tinder.
Miguel stopped for a moment, looked up into the sky and pointed with his thick carpenter’s pencil at rising smoke. “Look, another fire.”
Wildfires are so widespread in the region that firefighters cannot always extinguish every ember and hotspots, which can revive conflagrations they thought had been snuffed.
Every day for a week at the Bío Bío River, firefighters’ helicopters hovered just above the river, dangling their buckets on long cables to refill them. Then they would fly back above the burning tree plantations to douse hotspots in a fiery game of whack-a-mole. Higher up, large fix-winged aircraft disgorged deluges of water, returning again and again during daylight hours.
Bound to the east by the high Andes and to the west by the icy waters of the Pacific, Chile’s geologically isolated coastal micro-climates support many endemic species, with 90 percent of its seed plants found nowhere else on earth.
The huge amounts of water consumed by monoculture tree plantations to the south of Santiago and the avocado orchards in the drier north have stretched diminishing water supplies beyond their limit as the drought shows no signs of easing and the glaciers of the Andes continue to thin and shrink in the warming and drying climate.
The Chilean government says it is working to rectify the water shortfall by investing $6 billion to construct 26 new reservoirs, but this is no quick fix as it can take up to 25 years to build a new reservoir at a time that existing reservoirs are drying up. During the worst drought in a millennia, it’s unclear whether a new reservoir will even fill.
The central government allocated an additional $63 million to improve aqueducts and other water infrastructure as 35 percent of urban drinking water is lost to leaky pipes.
On Sept. 4, 2022, Chile voted on a proposed constitution to replace the existing one, which was drafted during the Pinochet regime. Large provisions within it would have focused upon the environment, water, climate change and biodiversity, but the proposed constitution was roundly rejected by 62 percent of the voters. That’s forced proponents of change to the nation’s water management policies must find another way to enact them.
But just as the wild fluctuations in weather in California can no longer be ignored, residents of Central Chile recognize they can no longer turn a blind eye to the country’s intensifying climate crisis. The current plantation economic model, be it avocados in the north or monoculture tree farms to the south, can’t be sustained with the region’s precious and finite water resources.