In Chile, Many Regard Climate Change As The Greatest External Threat : Parallels Drought, floods and wildfires are signs that climate change has become a harsh reality for the 17 million people of Chile. Laguna de Aculeo used to be a booming summer playground, but not anymore.

In Chile, Many Regard Climate Change As The Greatest External Threat

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This summer, we are taking a deeper look at climate change and the profound effect it's having on people around the world. Today, we're going to Chile in South America. NPR's Philip Reeves visited a community whose landscape and livelihoods are undergoing a dramatic change.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Fernando Rojas has spent his life beside a big lake. He lives here, between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in a valley with vineyards and almond orchards and groves of poplar trees. It's a pocket of heaven. Or, rather, it was before something terrible started to happen.

FERNANDO ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rojas says about seven years ago, the lake began to shrink. It was quite large, roughly four times the size of New York's Central Park. Most of the water's gone.

ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Rojas, who's 74, used to farm around here. He shows a photograph of when the lake was deep and full.

ROJAS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "It was so beautiful in winter," he says. "You could see the snow on the hills reflected in the water."

The lake's called the Laguna de Aculeo. It's an hour's drive south of Chile's capital, Santiago. It was a big tourist area. City folk used to flock here at weekends to sail and windsurf and jet ski. What's left of the lake is now only good for paddling and walking.

All around me, for hundreds and hundreds of yards, all I could see is mud and horses and cattle which are grazing here. Just over there, about 300 or 400 yards away from where I am, there are these beautiful villas with manicured lawns and palm trees and balconies and pavilions. And each one has a little wooden jetty sticking out into what is now a sea of mud.

Claudio Mella's standing on his jetty at the bottom of the garden of his villa.

CLAUDIO MELLA: So, normally, this is a pier where we use a lot for sailing. I love to go sailing and windsurfing. Right now we are looking. There's no water here, and the lake is far, far away. In the morning, I walk there. It's about 800 meters.

REEVES: Mella's an orthopedic surgeon from Santiago who's been coming here with his family for years. He says what's happening to the lake is especially hard on the local community.

MELLA: They are suffering. They depend from the water. And we see them also - some sociological problems. We have a lot of good friends here, and many of them have some depression, some family problems.

ORIANA LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Oriana Lopez is among those who depends on the water. She had a thriving windsurfing business. It's been five years since she saw her last client. When the water began to vanish, Lopez was left pretty much...

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...In penury. Lopez won't leave the lake, though.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I was born and raised here," she says. "I love this land."

Chile's endured a seven-year drought. This was unusually severe, says Maisa Rojas, a climatologist at the University of Chile who compiled a report on the drought.

MAISA ROJAS: We have been calling it the mega drought because it has been very extended in space and in time. We have seen this before - but never so widespread.

REEVES: The drought hit the south and center of Chile, where most of the 17 million population live. That's also where the lake is. Studies are underway exploring ways of saving the lake. Among those involved is a leading hydrologist, Felipe Martin, a former head of the commission that develops Chile's policy on water resources.

FELIPE MARTIN: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Martin believes that if nothing's done soon, the lake could soon dry out completely in a couple of years. And that'll devastate the surrounding ecosystem. The lake depends entirely for its water on rainfall. Martin says it also lost some water when its aquifers were damaged by a big earthquake a few years back. But the drought's a crucial factor. And he blames that on climate change.

MARCELO MENA: We don't even deny. We actually teach climate change without any doubts.

REEVES: That is Chile's environment minister, Marcelo Mena. He says the government regards climate change as an issue of such importance that it's introducing mandatory climate change classes throughout Chile's schools.

MENA: There's no space for this climate denial because we see climate change threatening us in multiple shapes.

REEVES: Just look at the thermometer, says Mena.

MENA: We're talking about 1.1 degree being the global departure or anomaly of temperature for the last year. In Chile, most of our anomalies are upwards of 2 degrees. So, therefore, we've been, the last two years, facing extreme weather events that really have us very worried.

REEVES: Those extreme events include torrential rain that cause deadly floods and landslides, says Mena.



REEVES: This year, the world's TV screens filled with images of Chile's worst-ever wildfires. Fueled by drought, these burned 2,300 square miles of land, wiping out forests and entire towns. Chile's glaciers in the Andes are melting at an accelerated rate. And, says Mena, last year, a big chunk of Chile's salmon fisheries was destroyed by a giant algae bloom created by abnormal climatic conditions.

MENA: When you see things that you haven't seen before that really make you worry that this is really getting out of hand, and when you see that some people are trying to deny the climate science, then it's a moment in which you have to take the gloves off, and you have to be very blunt about the fact that we are facing a challenge that is like something we've never seen before.

REEVES: Chile's government is counterattacking on multiple fronts. It's trying to adapt to the changing climate, for example, by building reservoirs and creating green areas to cool down cities. Chile is also revolutionizing its approach to renewable energy, says climatologist Maisa Rojas.

ROJAS: Solar energy is going to be very big. We have wind. We have geothermal and tidal, et cetera. And very conservative projections say that renewable energies will represent 80 percent of the energy matrix by 2050.

REEVES: The metro system in Santiago, the capital, looks the same as any other cities. Soon, though, 60 percent of the energy powering it will come from solar and wind power. These changes are big. But how can anyone be certain that Chile's drought and other recent disasters were really caused by climate change? Rojas says to prove that, you have to show an event wouldn't have happened were it not for climate change by using modeling studies. We haven't done those, she says.

ROJAS: But the climatic context in which these events have occurred are very much like what we expect from climate change.

REEVES: Rojas is also expecting something else. She says studies show that Chile soon will very likely have even less precipitation. At the Laguna de Aculeo, that shrinking lake, residents wonder what they'll do if the water never comes back. Paulo Gutierrez quit a lucrative technology job to set up a cafe and a bakery here just around the time the water began to sink. Their neighborhood's called Little Venice. Now Gutierrez is considering moving on.

PAULO GUTIERREZ: A lot of people like me is thinking, buy land in the south of Chile because the climate change will take a little bit more to get there.

REEVES: Gutierrez has seen enough. He's done with the debate of whether climate change is real.

GUTIERREZ: Twenty years ago, it was a possibility. Right now it's a reality.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Santiago.

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