By Matthew Kaufman
Santiago, Chile has announced a new water rationing system as the country enters its 13th year of a harsh drought. The capital city is home to six million people.
“A city can't live without water,” said Claudio Orrego, the governor of the Santiago metropolitan region. “And we're in an unprecedented situation in Santiago's 491-year history where we have to prepare for there to not be enough water for everyone who lives here.”
According to Reuters, the plan consists of a four-tier alert system that moves from green to red. It begins with public announcements about conserving water, moving on to lessening water pressure and ending with rotating water cuts that could last up to 24 hours. The level of alert will be based on the capacity of the Maipo and Mapocho rivers, which are the main water sources for the region.
The move comes as Chile’s government has been in the process of writing a new constitution since July 2021. As reported by the New York Times, the Constitutional Convention, containing members elected by the people, is expected to focus heavily on climate change in the new code. Convention members are considering how to regulate mining, as Chile is the world’s second largest exporter of lithium, along with water rights, such as whether or not brine–salt water underneath the desert–should be considered water or not. The implications of that decision could determine how strict the regulations are for brine extraction and who is allowed to partake in it.
The restrictions in Chile are much stricter than what has recently been enacted in places that are facing similar droughts, like California.
In January, California’s State Water Resources Control Board announced rules stating that residents could not water their lawns for 48 hours after a rainstorm and that sprinklers could not run off into sidewalks, as reported by ABC News. Additionally, the policy stated that citizens could not use drinkable water to wash sidewalks or driveways or to fill up fountains.
“Conserving water and reducing water waste are critical and necessary habits for everyone to adopt as we adjust to these uncertainties and we build resilience to climate change, so adopting emergency regulations now just makes sense,” Eric Oppenheimer of the Control Board said. “We need to be prepared for continued drought.”
Cape Town, South Africa, faced a similar crisis as Santiago in 2017 when its fresh water sources fell below a quarter of their capacity. If they fell below 13.5% of capacity, according to MIT Technology Review, the water network would have been shut down.
Luckily, through residents’ dedication to water conservation and quick investments by the government in things like desalination plants, the city never reached that level, and the area made it through the drought until the rains came and filled the dams four months later.
In 2020, Cape Town’s government released a plan to ensure the city’s water supply never comes near that critical point again. The city plans to diversify its water sources to include recycled and treated wastewater and storm runoff. Investments will also be made in more desalination plants and water treatment infrastructure.
As the climate continues to warm, actions like those taken by Cape Town will be critical in ensuring that citizens have access to clean water, and Gov. Orrego of Santiago acknowledged that the water rationing plan may only be the first action the city needs to take in response to climate change.
“This is the first time in history that Santiago has a water rationing plan due to the severity of climate change,” said Gov. Orrego. “It's important for citizens to understand that climate change is here to stay. It's not just global, it's local.”