In Chile, the Disappearance of a Lake Highlights Global Climate Change

In the midst of an unprecedented 13-year drought, the Penuelas reservoir of central Chile, the main source of water for the city of Valparaiso, has shrunk from a lake that held enough water for 38,000 Olympic regulation-size swimming pools to one that holds enough water for just two. Over the next 30 years, the University of Chile estimates that the country will lose 30% of its water.

Speaking to Reuters, Jose Luis Murillo, the general manager of ESVAL, the firm that supplies water to the city of Valparaiso, said that “What we have [in the reservoir] is just a puddle,” with the drought and subsequent decline of the lake forcing the city to rely on rivers for water. He added that the reservoir needed increased rainfall to recover but that while the rain was traditionally reliable in the winter, it has declined to historic lows as the drought continues.

Local resident Amanda Carrasco, 54, told Reuters that “We have to beg God to send us water,” continuing to say, “I’ve never seen it like this. There’s been less water before, but not like now.”

Studies connect the events in Chile to the larger global climate crisis. According to a study from Columbia University, increasing global ocean temperatures have intensified the natural warming of the waters off of Chile’s coast, the process of which typically protects the coast from storms, among other factors. Additionally, a 2019 study on Chile’s drought focusing on the period between 2010-2018 and published in the International Journal of Climatology stated the duration and continuing consequences of the drought were very much dependent on the larger global direction of human emissions on the global environment.

The events in Chile only demonstrate the continued need for global climate change action. It is the responsibility of state authorities to both regulate fossil fuel and other emissions in their own territories and also to work with other states, both regionally and internationally, to ensure that this planet is preserved for future generations. This responsibility primarily falls on the countries that produce the most emissions; it is no anomaly that the 10 countries with the highest greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for 68% of all emissions, while the bottom 100 countries produce only 3% of all emissions, according to the United Nations. Already global climate change, which disproportionately affects the Global South, has helped contribute to a global migration crisis that threatens the stability and peace of the globe as a whole.

According to the United Nations, greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest level in 2 million years, with emissions continuing to rise. The 2010-2020 decade was the warmest on record, with temperatures projected to rise even further in the next century. The effects of climate change include, as seen in Chile, intense droughts and water scarcity, but also severe fires, rising ocean levels, flooding, melting polar ice caps, a reduction in biodiversity, and increasingly catastrophic storms. Global climate change experts advise that in order to prevent climate change from getting worse, emissions must be cut.

In order to prevent more situations like the Penuelas reservoir, states must publicly commit to and, most importantly, follow through on global climate action plans such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement. States cannot simply pay lip service to these agreements and continue to allow the world’s most disadvantaged to pay the disproportionate price. Additionally, with the current effects of climate change irreversible, states and non-governmental organizations must adapt to the new world the human race has created both in policy and in financial resources. The Penuelas reservoir is not the first lake to disappear as a result of climate change, but with concentrated action by state and international actors, it can be one of the last.