Pende sobre el Valle, que arde,
una laguna de ensueño
que lo bautiza y refresca
de un eterno refrigerio
cuando el río de Elqui merma
blanqueando el ijar sediento…
The Valley burns: above it
hangs a dream lagoon
baptizing and sprinkling it
with everlasting coolness
when the Elqui River shrinks,
bleaching its thirsty banks...
From Valle de Elqui,
by Gabriela Mistral, who was born and raised in the Elqui town of Vicuña.
Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, by Gabriela Mistral and Ursula K. LeGuin
The Elqui River Valley is in Coquimbo, Chile's most mountainous region.
It is also the most narrow part of the country, where the mountains
are an everpresent backdrop, even at the Pacific’s shore.
Coquimbo is a typical semi-arid or dryland area.
Less then 100 millimeters of rain falls here,
almost all of it during the short winter rainy season.
It is one of the driest places on Earth.
On top of this, rain and snowfall are highly variable year-to-year.
In the past, people have had to cope with drought conditions in one year
and rainfall five times above average in the next.
Cacti, shrubs and herbs dominate the natural landscape.
This work has taken on new urgency and importance
because of a persistent multi-year drought that began in 2009
and that has diminished water levels in the Puclaro Reservoir.
The reservoir, fed by the Elqui, irrigates thousands of hectares of farmland
and supports drinking water for the cities of La Serena and Vicuña.
The Puclaro Reservoir is now almost completely dry,
currently at 10% of its capacity as of May 2013.
The following pictures shows how low the water level has changed
from its 2009 peak, indicated by the lighter coloring on the mountainside.
Here's the view from the top of the Puclaro Dam...
And here's the view of the empty reservoir,
with the dam in the far distance...
Water levels are so low, that we can walk through the streets
of the original village of Gualliguaica, which was flooded
when the Puclaro Dam was built in 1997.
The ruins were once under 60 feet of water.
Natalia Edith Codoceo Flores gives us a tour of this old village,
where she grew up and lived until residents moved
to the new Gualliguaica, built on higher ground
to make way for the dam’s construction.
The long drought has made earning a living in the Elqui Valley very challenging,
not only for traditional rainfed farmers and goat herders like Modesto Gilberto
and Rosa Rivera, who have already lost hundreds of goats...
…but also for small farmers like Dina Cifuentes,
who grows flowers and vegetables and depends on irrigation
from the Puclaro reservoir.
This year, Cifuentes preemptively decided to cut her production by 50%
because she worried about not receiving enough water for her plants.
Grape growers and other large operations
with much more sophisticated water management strategies
are also not immune to the drought's effects.
Bruno Espinoza Moran is the general manager
of the Fundo El Algarrobal vineyard,
which has been constructing its own, smaller reservoirs
to store water in case the Elqui dries up completely.
As mentioned earlier, rain and snowfall in Coquimbo can vary significantly
from one year to the next.
El Niño and La Niña
in the tropical Pacific drive a significant part of this variability.
Scientists routinely monitor these climate events as they unfold,
and so are able to predict with fairly high confidence the impacts
they're going to have on Coquimbo's precipitation months ahead of time.
The water authority that manages the Puclaro dam
and the rest of the Elqui River is known as the
Junta de La Vigilancia.
José Izquierdo Zomosa is the Junta's president.
Every year, he and his team issues estimates
of water availability for the forthcoming growing season
so that farmers like Dina Cifuentes and Bruno Espinoza Moran
as well as other users can plan accordingly.
Andrew Robertson is a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.
Koen Verbist is a scientist who currently works at UNESCO Santiago.
In 2010, they developed a seasonal forecast model to predict precipitation for the Coquimbo region using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
and IRI’s powerful Climate Predictability Tool
Their colleagues, Paul Block and Edmundo Gonzales, from Drexel University
and the University of La Serena, respectively,
developed an accurate model for the Elqui River that predicts the river's streamflow
for the upcoming season based on data from weather stations around Coquimbo.
IRI, UNESCO and the Water Centre for Arid Zones worked closely with the Junta to incorporate this scientific knowledge into its operations.
In 2012, the water authority used seasonal forecasts for the first time to generate water estimates for the upcoming summer, and presented these scenarios at its annual meeting in September!
The success of this early work resulted from the strong collaboration
among scientists, engineers and policy makers who used science
in order to address a real and expressed societal need.
The challenge now is to integrate climate forecasts and other information
into policies that impact water management across the region.
The mission of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society is to enhance society’s capability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate in order to improve human welfare and the environment, especially in developing countries.
More information on IRI's work in Chile
IRI's Twitter feed
IRI's Facebook page
The photography and interviews represented in this essay were made possible via financial support from the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University
and from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Thanks also to Andy Robertson, Koen Verbist, Cathy Vaughan, Allyza Lustig, Melika Edquist and Brian Khan for their feedback and ideas.
See more of Francesco Fiondella's photography by visiting here
and while we're at it, even here.