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The retention of rainwater that is lost in the sea could be an excellent medicine against the advance of the desert from the north to the center of Chile, but there is no political will to take the actions required to take it, according to experts and representatives of affected communities .
“One of the priority works, especially in (the region of) Coquimbo, is the issue of rainwater retention. That is key because if we have eroded and degraded soil and we have eventual rains in winter, the soil is not capable of retaining more than 10 percent of the water that falls, "said Daniel Rojas, president of the agricultural community of Peña Blanca.
"The rest goes to the sea," the social leader of that productive organization of 85 small farmers, located 385 kilometers north of Santiago, which has 6,587 hectares, 98 percent of them rainfed, irrigated only, added to IPS. with rain water.
Rojas considered that "if we had retention works we could use between 50 and 70 percent of that water and recover our underground waters."
The Coquimbo region, where Peña Blanca is located, within the municipality of Ovalle, has 90 percent of its territory eroded and degraded
Between 2000 and 2016, the area of fruit trees in Chile grew 50 percent, but in Coquimbo it decreased 22.9 percent, from 35,558 to 27,395 hectares.
Water is vital in Chile, an agri-food powerhouse that last year sold 15,751 million dollars in food abroad and is the world's leading exporter of various fruits.
According to Rojas, there is academic, social and even political consensus on a solution that emphasizes the retention of water, "but the resources are not given or the necessary laws are dictated."
Pedro Castillo, mayor of the commune (municipality) of Combarbalá, agreed with Rojas.
"Due to the great centralism that prevails in our country, desertification will be relevant once the desert is knocking on Santiago's doors," the highest authority in this municipality, inhabited by small farmers and goat breeders, told IPS.
Castillo believes that all the projects "will only be good intentions if there is not a powerful and determined investment from the State of Chile to stop desertification."
The mayor affirmed that the advance of the desert can be fought by investing in the containment of waters, through “works that are not expensive”, such as the construction of infiltration ditches and containment dikes in the streams.
"With interceptor curtains it is possible to optimize (the capture of) rainwater, recharge the wells and reduce the requirement of additional water that today is delivered to the population with cistern trucks," he said.
“The cost of the interceptor curtains does not exceed five million pesos (7,936 dollars) because the works use materials that exist in the place and great engineering is not required. A cistern truck that distributes water costs the State about 40 million pesos ($ 63,492) each year, ”Castillo compared.
He also proposed curbing desertification by afforesting with native species the areas that agricultural communities give to the governmental National Forestry Corporation (Conaf).
"In the forestations, native trees are replanted that tolerate the scarce rainfall in this semi-arid sector and also generate fodder for the peasants of the sector," he stressed.
The Coquimbo region represents the southern border of the Atacama desert, the driest on earth and with the most solar reflection, with 105,000 square kilometers, distributed in six northern regions of this elongated and narrow country, between the Andes mountain range and the Pacific Ocean.
This year in Peña Blanca, in the extreme south of the desert, 150 millimeters of rain have fallen, a high figure for the average of recent years.
Rojas states that "there are many things to do, not to totally stop the advance of the desert, but to make it more difficult."
The social leader said that in the meetings with both academics and politicians there is an agreement on what to do, "but that is not reflected when a law has to be created or resources to do these jobs."
As an example of the situations that occur, he detailed the case of a novel project for the retention of rainwater underground, whose study and development obtained financing, "but not the work." "
“Then it's no use. Ideas must be specified with works. The urgent thing is that, less studies and more works ”, it maintained.
Rojas also criticized that the State spends "billions of pesos" in the distribution of water to rural sectors through cistern trucks.
“If the amount of resources that the State puts in for the distribution of water with tank trucks were put to work to solve the problem, it would be invested only once and not every year increasing a business. Because that water distribution is a business, "he said.
Geographer Nicolás Schneider, promoter of the non-governmental Fundación un Alto en el Desierto, told IPS that Chile “is not making a public policy regarding tools, specific policies and the provision of resources” so that desertification does not advance in the country.
"Successful alternatives are isolated experiences that are the result of enthusiasm or group undertakings, but not of a state policy to stop this progress (of the desertification process) that is scientifically accredited," he said.
He recalled the Chilean physicist Carlos Espinosa, inventor of the fog catcher, a system also known as fog catchers whose patent he donated in the 1980s to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and which consists of harvesting water from the fog.
These mist catchers consist of fine mesh networks of an interweaving of wires and fibers, known as raschel, that rise up on the misty slopes to capture the suspended drops of water, which then go through small gutters to storage tanks.
These systems, increasingly perfected, have been providing water for human consumption and for irrigation in general lands from 600 meters above sea level for decades.
In the Cerro Grande Ecological Reserve, owned by Peña Blanca, the Fundación un Alto en el Desierto installed 24 fog catchers and a fog study center.
“There the daily average of fog water is six liters per cubic meter of raschel mesh and 35 percent shade. Given that they are nine square meters in size, we have a catchment area of 216 meters, which gives 1,296 liters of water per day, ”said Schneider.
He explained that "this water is used mainly for reforestation and ecological restoration, brewing beer, drinking water for animals and when there is severe drought for human consumption."
"It is also an educational element because thousands of children have visited the fog catchers, turning them into an open-air classroom against desertification," he stressed.
He added that there is a great potential for fog from Papudo, on the central Chilean coast, to Arica, in the extreme north of this country, which has not been used for the benefit of coastal communities that have access and water quality problems.
Eduardo Rodríguez, Conaf regional director in Coquimbo, told IPS that all of the corporation's programs are aimed at fighting desertification, including one against forest fires, which now have better indicators.
"However, we have problems in afforestation because we do not yet have a promotion instrument that allows us to increase afforestation, reforestation and revegetation of a region that was degraded almost a century and a half ago," he admitted.
By Orlando Milesi
Edition: Estrella Gutiérrez