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Avocado town becomes symbol of Chile’s water war

Karina Torres has spent more than seven years without running water in her home in central Chile. Yet, across the road, water flows in abundance to irrigate thousands of hectares of avocados.

It’s one of the paradoxes of this South American country’s push for progress. With water growing ever more scarce, glistening green cash crops are taking precedence over a local town’s claims to the supply.

Last year’s rains brought a little relief to the town of Calle Larga, in a subtropical zone 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Santiago.

Briefly, water flowed from taps again. And Karina could shower and water the few animals that survived the prolonged drought.

But respite was fleeting. Locals blame the lack of water — the central theme of this week’s International Water Forum in Brazil — on climate change. However, villagers also blame thriving local agriculture businesses, mostly avocado growers, for exacerbating the shortage.

Avocado has become the crop of choice to satisfy growing demand for nutritious super-foods in the United States and Europe. Farmers have rooted out traditional potato, tomato and fruit tree plantations in favor of what is known around here as “green gold”.

In the province of Petorca surrounding Calle Larga, some 16,000 hectares are given over to the cultivation of avocados, according to Rodrigo Mundaca, founder and spokesman of Modatima, an organization set up to defend water rights.

In the 1990s, avocado cultivation accounted for only 2,000 hectares.

To put it into perspective, every hectare of avocado needs 100,000 liters of water a day, “equivalent to the consumption needs of 1,000 people,” added Mundaca.

— Rivers run dry —

Chile is one of the main exporters of this superfood, along with Mexico and Peru. According to official data, exports last year reached 159,700 tonnes of avocados — 32,000 more than in 2016.

The local rivers, the Ligua and Petorca, have trickled down to dry riverbeds, where once locals swam and fished for shrimp.

“Here we have 10-year-old children who have never seen a river,” said Mundaca.

Without water from the rivers, the whole hydrological cycle has been altered: there’s no evaporation, no cloud formations, no rain, said the agricultural engineer.

In Cabildo, one of the province’s biggest towns, water for the 22,000 population is brought in by tanker-truck.

“We are spending the valley’s savings book,” said Carolina Vilches, in charge of Petorca municipality’s water services.

The agribusinesses take a different view. Cabilfrut, one of the local avocado producers, described the allegations as “totally false.”

– Privatized water –

Part of the Chile’s problem stems from the decision to privatize water under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1981.

Socialist president Michele Bachelet, who left power last month, tried to reform the law to strengthen state regulation, protect water sources and make human use a priority. The reform passed through the lower house last year but stalled in the Senate.

“No one is against farmers having water concessions, but obviously the state has to have the power to prioritize what it is used for,” said Sara Larrain, director of NGO Chile Sustenable.

The lack of water has destroyed family run farms and their livestock, forcing farm workers to migrate to other areas of the country in search of work, particularly in mining.

Without rivers, wells are being dug deeper across the province of Petorca. Meanwhile, agribusinesses build up reservoirs at the head of the local valley to guarantee a steady supply of irrigation water.

Nobody wastes a drop. Water used to wash the dishes or clothes is reused for irrigation or for bathing.

Agrochemicals used in the plantations have seeped into the ground water, a growing threat to health, warned Vilches.

The state has an obligation to supply drinking water to rural areas under the Rural Potable Water (APR) scheme.

But that has posed its own problems for locals, as farmers have built illegal pipelines near those wells to divert the water.

Vilches, in charge of administration for the APR, says she has received death threats.

“Lately we’ve had a lot of harassment,” she said.

All that Karina Torres wants is water, to drink, to clean, to bathe in.

“We just want water, and that they don’t exploit our rivers,” she said.

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