From: Reuters
Published February 21, 2008 12:51 PM

Chile government hands out water in major drought

By Rodrigo Martinez

SANTA ROSA, Chile (Reuters) - Chile is suffering its worst drought in decades, and the government is handing out emergency drinking water along a quarter of the Andean nation's length as wells dry up.

Farmers in small towns in south-central Chile have lost crops and livestock in the drought blamed on the weather phenomenon La Nina.

Rainfall records show the semi-arid region got one of its lowest levels of precipitation in half a century, and some specialists say its been 80 years since the weather got so dry.

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"For me this is the worst drought. We've had sort of dry years before, but there was always ground water," said 68-year-old Oscar Cerda, standing beside a dried out 20-foot (6 meter) well in Santa Rosa, a community 60 miles southwest of the capital Santiago.

A few yards away in the parched earth, shaded only by thorny vegetation, lie the remains of a cow and two calves who did not survive the drought.

To keep his remaining 20 cows alive, Cerda needs to trek half a mile to another, 164-foot (50-meter), well that still has some water.

Santa Rosa is one of 89 rural communities hit hardest by the drought and declared an agricultural emergency area by the government. Media report at least 120,000 people have been affected.

Fruit growers have not been hurt yet because they have deep wells, but there could be problems next season for this major Chilean industry and economists warn of higher energy and food prices as water levels are low at hydroelectric dams.

Authorities have installed tanks in the most needy areas and trucks come by weekly to fill them. Forage for livestock is also delivered once a week.

"The situation is pretty dramatic and maybe the citizens don't realize the true extent of the problem, in part because the government has been fairly active and anticipated the issue," said Rodrigo Weisner, Chile's public works director in charge of water resources, who calls it one of the worst droughts in 80 years.

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Water has always been sacred in this region, where truckers leave bottled water by a shrine to a folk saint La Difunta Correa, reputed to have perished of thirst in the desert while she kept her baby alive as it suckled at her breasts.

But this year the situation is in the hands of another lady, the weather phenomenon known as La Nina, which means 'The Girl' in Spanish.

La Nina occurs when the surface temperature of the central coastal Pacific Ocean cools. In this part of Chile that prevents precipitation, while in neighboring Bolivia the same phenomenon has caused torrential rain and flooding.

"La Nina reached maturity in January and then began to decline. Model projections indicate decline. From now until May La Nina will be weaker, but she'll still be there," said Jorge Carrasco, a meteorologist with Chile's Climatology Department.

In the Santa Rosa community, residents are braced for the hard months ahead before they can hope for rain.

"The next two months will be critical, but we hope things will get better by May," said Flor Abarca, on the community council and a director of the Santa Rosa water committee.

(Writing by Lisa Yulkowski; editing by Pav Jordan and Jackie Frank)

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