Managing water in a dry land

Source: IRI - Fri, 21 Jun 2013 00:30 AM
Author: Francesco Fiondella, IRI - Sr. Communications Officer
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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Scientists from Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society, UNESCO, the Water Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Zones in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Center for Advanced Research in Arid Zones are working with local authorities to help them better manage and allocate Coquimbo's most precious resource: water.

  • 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. This picture shows how low the water level has changed from its 2009 peak, indicated by the lighter coloring on the mountainside.

  • 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 for traditional rainfed farmers and goat herders like Modesto Gilberto.

  • Rosa Elvida Rivera and her family herd hundreds of goats in Coquimbo. She tells us she lost nearly two hundred animals because of drought.

  • Goat herding is a traditional livelihood in the drylands of Coquimbo, Chile. These goats are pasturing very near the Elqui River.

  • Dina Cifuentes 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.

  • Bruno Espinoza Moran is the general manager of the Fundo El Algarrobal vineyard.

  • Fundo El Algarrobal vineyard 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.

  • Every year, the Junta 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, Andrew Robertson and Verbist 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!

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