Managing Water in a Dry Land

by | June 17, 2013
Category: News
A cactus sits just above the Elqui River, which runs through the Coquimbo region of Chile. Click the image to see a visual story about faculty member Andrew Robertson's work in the region. Photo: Francesco Fiondella/IRI

A cactus sits just above the Elqui River, which runs through the Coquimbo region of Chile. Click the image to see a visual story about faculty member Andrew Robertson’s work in the region. Photo: Francesco Fiondella/IRI

The Elqui River basin encompasses nearly 3800 square miles in Chile’s narrowest stretch between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The river starts on the western fringes of the Andes and drops 2675 feet to meet the sea. The basin itself receives only four inches of rain annually, making it one of the driest places on the planet. Higher in the Andes, snow and rainfall are more plentiful but still highly variable.

That makes the Elqui a sometimes tenuous lifeline for the region. It provides drinking water to the towns of Vicuña and La Serena and irrigation for everything from large-scale vineyards to small farmers as well as water for goat and other animal herds.

To improve access to and storage of its waters, the Chilean government built the Puclaro dam in the middle of the basin in the 1990s. Unfortunately, a multiyear drought that started in 2009 reduced the reservoir behind the dam to 10 percent of its capacity as of May 2013.

It’s against this backdrop that C+S core faculty member and International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) research scientist Andrew Robertson began a project in 2010 with Koen Verbist, a researcher at UNESCO Santiago, to provide seasonal forecasts that could give water managers in the Elqui basin a leg up on these variable conditions. Robertson, Verbist and their colleagues have developed seasonal river streamflow forecasts based on global climate and local weather conditions. The local water authority used these forecasts to generate water availability estimates for the first time in 2012.

Now the goal is to better-integrate the forecasts into policies that impact water management across the region. To learn more about the people of the Elqui basin and the value of Robertson’s work in the region, take a look at a new visual story put together by IRI’s Francesco Fiondella for the World Day to Combat Desertification.

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