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Chile’s Glaciers Face Multiple Threats

June 25, 2014
Ice formations in Patagonia (Benjamin Witte)

Glacial ice in Chilean Patagonia (Benjamin Witte)

A prolonged rain deficit and a memorable media maneuver by the high-profile environmental group Greenpeace have together sparked an upsurge in public interest regarding Chile’s world-class collection of glaciers.

Chile, home to an estimated 82% of South America’s glaciers, relies on the mountaintop ice packs as a vital source of fresh water, particularly in times of drought. Right now is one of those times. The coastal country is coming off its driest year since 1998 and third driest since 1866, according to the government’s Dirección Meteorológica. Worse yet, 2013 was Chile’s the fourth drier-than-average year in a row, prompting authorities to declare official states of “escasez hídrica” (water shortage) in numerous districts throughout the central part of the country, from the semi-arid Región de Coquimbo, approximately 400 km north of Santiago, south to the normally green Región de Maule.

One of the places hardest hit is Petorca province in the Region de Valparaíso, a major avocado growing area located some 200 km north of Santiago. “Here there just isn’t any [water],” Petorca Mayor Gustavo Valdebenito told the Chilean daily La Tercera in late February. “For the past three years there hasn’t been any surface water. In the irrigation channels there isn’t even a drop. There’s even less in the river.” The worsening water problems have wreaked havoc on the local agriculture industry, driving up unemployment and forcing many of the town’s residents to pack up and leave. “We have an unemployment rate of 20% – the highest in Chile. Petorca is dying,” said Valdebenito.

Valdebenito and his counterparts in other affected communities have turned to the government in Santiago for help, demanding both short-term responses (that water be trucked in, for example) and longer-term solutions, such as additional dams and reservoirs. For others, however, the drought has led to even longer-term thinking, particularly with regards to the frozen fresh water resources contained in the country’s approximately 2,000 glaciers, which represent a last line of defense against rising temperatures and the kinds of extended dry spells that, according to climate scientists, could occur with increasing frequency in Chile.

“One of the challenges involved in trying to sustain our water resources has to do with understanding and protecting our biggest fresh water reserves: the glaciers,” Guillermo Pickering, executive president of the private Asociación Nacional de Empresas de Servicios Sanitarios (Andess A.G.), explained in an essay published March 22 by the online news site El Mostrador. “[Chile] doesn’t just belong to those who live here now. Future generations are going to depend on our behavior now,” the Andess A.G. head, sounding more like an environmentalist than a business association leader, added.

Birth of a nation

Pickering’s piece, titled “Los glaciares y la nueva conciencia ambiental” (The glaciers and the new environmental consciousness), appeared less than two weeks after the local chapter of Greenpeace pulled off a conspicuous publicity stunt also aimed at protecting Chile’s many – and in most cases threatened – glaciers.

In early March, just ahead of the country’s presidential handover, the international environmental group announced it had used loopholes in the law to found “República Glaciar,” a new “country” comprised of Chile’s approximately 23,000 sq km of glaciers.

Greenpeace coupled its announcement with a full-page “declaration” in The New York Times. “Today, March 5, 2014, the world will witness the birth of a new Country. A Country threatened by economic interests, which rises seeking the protection of its citizens,” the paid advertisement – written in elegant script and featuring the new country’s mountain-inspired logo – read.  “Chile is one of the few countries in the world that does not consider glaciers in its legislation. Worse, glaciers do not belong to the State, nor do they belong to the Chilean people. The glaciers don’t belong to anybody. This legal void has allowed Greenpeace to create a new Republic: República Glaciar (Glacier Republic), where any person in the planet can become a citizen.”

So far, nearly 100,000 people – including famous Chilean “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra, a former Nobel prize nominee – have done just that, obtaining República Glaciar “nationality” via a Greenpeace website. The organization provides new citizens with actual passports. It has also established diplomatic offices in some 40 different countries (using the branch offices Greenpeace already operates) and set up a semi-permanent camp – where the new country’s sky blue-colored flag proudly flies – atop a mountain near Santiago.

Rapid retreat

Greenpeace says it is eager to place República Glaciar back under Chilean “control,” but only after the government provides the glaciers with some kind of concrete legal protection, as neighboring Argentina did in 2010, when it passed a law banning mining and oil drilling on or near glaciers. Argentina’s high court upheld the law in a landmark ruling in 2012.

“We invite the new president [Michelle Bachelet] to prioritize the need to protect these ancient ice sheets, which are a source of life for Chile, and which are currently under threat affecting not only the country’s environment but also the hundreds of communities in Chile who depend on the glaciers for their survival,” Greenpeace Chile Director and unofficial República Glaciar spokesperson Matías Asún told reporters on March 10, one day before Bachelet took over leadership of the country from outgoing President Sebastián Piñera.

Studies suggest that the majority of Chile’s glaciers are in “retreat,” meaning they melt every year more than they grow. In some cases, the process is moving at an alarmingly accelerated pace. The Jorge Montt glacier in the far southern Region de Aysén made headlines in late 2011 when a team of Chilean researchers determined it had lost a full kilometer in just one year. The glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which stretches along the border between Chile and Argentina and covers an area of some 16,800-sq km. Together with the nearby Northern Patagonian Ice Field (4,200 sq km) it represents one of the largest non-polar ice concentrations in the world.

Also in 2011, a team of British and Swedish scientists – based on research done in both ice fields – concluded that all but two of the 350 glaciers they examined are in retreat. They determined, furthermore, that the melt rate in the past three decades was far higher than it had been during the preceding three centuries. “The glaciers have lost a lot less ice up until 30 years ago than had been thought. The real killer is that the rate of loss has gone up 100 times above the long-term average. It’s scary,” lead investigator Neil Glasser of Aberystwyth University (in Whales, UK) told the British daily The Independent.

What’s causing the rapid erosion? A growing number of researchers point to climate change as the culprit. Assuming that is the case, there is only a limited amount Chilean authorities can do to reverse the trend, which is being triggered, according to scientists, by so-called greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from northern industrialized nations.

The mining menace

Chile’s glaciers face another threat, however, that really could be tackled by tough legislation: mining, say Greenpeace and its allies. The issue has gained increasing attention in recent years thanks in large part to Canada’s Barrick Gold, the world’s largest mining company, which has been pushing forward with a multi-billion-dollar, border-hugging project (Chile/Argentina) called Pascua Lama. The project – which is currently stalled – has triggered no shortage of controversy because of its proximity to several Andean glaciers, parts of which have already suffered damage, critics allege.

The Pascua Lama polemic has recently been superceded by another potentially glacier-damaging project, which is being planned in this case not by a private multinational, but by the Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile (CODELCO), Chile’s state-owned copper giant. CODELCO plans to invest some US$7 billion to expand a mine called Andina 244, located approxiately 50 km northeast of Santiago in the Aconcagua river basin. Opponents of the project say it could damage more than 20 area glaciers. CODELCO estimates that only six would be affected.

“[Pascua Lama] is famous for destroying glaciers. But right now there’s an even greater danger: CODELCO’s plan to expand Andina 244, which would destroy 5,000 hectares of glaciers and could thus have a direct impact on the water reserves for all of central Chile,” said Matías Asún. “That’s why it is so urgent that we pass a glacier protection law.”

As pressing as the problem may be, Greenpeace will probably have to be patient. President Bachelet, who just returned to power after a four-year hiatus (her first term as president ran from 2006-2010), has a tremendously full agenda as it is, especially in the wake of last week’s 8.2-magnitude earthquake near Iquique, in northern Chile’s Región de Tarapacá. The quake killed six people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Other top priorities for the new administration include sweeping tax reform (Bachelet has already submitted a packet of proposals to Congress), a promised overhaul of Chile’s much-maligned public education system, and major changes to the country’s dictatorship-era Constitution.

Eventually, though, the glacier issue could force its way onto the new administration’s radar, particularly if the upcoming winter months do not produce the forecasted rains central Chile so badly needs. The Andina 244 expansion project – which environmentalists are already calling the “new HidroAysén” – could play a role as well.

HidroAysén is a controversial hydroelectric venture planned for a pair of Patagonian rivers. It has been hotly contested by environmental groups and civil society organizations, which have so far kept the plan’s developers – Spanish energy giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean utility – from breaking ground. Bachelet managed to sidestep the issue during her first term by postponing HidroAysén’s environmental approval process until after she left office. Andina 244, given that it is essentially a state venture, will be harder to ignore.

(This article originally appeared April 11, 2014 in LADB)

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