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Chile communities defy the desert by capturing increasingly scarce water

  • The inhabitants of a rural community on the expanding frontier of Chile’s Atacama Desert are able to harvest around 500,000 liters (132,000 gallons) of water per year, thanks to fog nets installed 17 years ago.
  • This water has allowed them to revive their mountain region’s vegetation and launch new businesses to improve their quality of life and adapt to drought.
  • Other initiatives in the region, aimed at making the most use of the less frequent rains, help retain water for livestock and prevent soil erosion and mudslides.
  • But these initiatives are pilot projects, with no funding or political support to sustain them over the long term, which the community says are what are needed the most.

In the middle of an increasingly arid landscape, where Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, keeps expanding southward, a small forest less than a third the size of New York’s Central Park is irrigated by water from fog, harvested by the rural community of Peña Blanca.

Each day, they capture more than 1,500 liters (400 gallons) using 252 square meters (2,713 square feet) of fog collectors, installed 17 years ago in cooperation with the Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation, on a hill called Cerro Grande.

Thanks to the water provided by the fog collectors, at least 30 native species of plants grow in the Cerro Grande Ecological Reserve in Chile’s Coquimbo region. Some of these species are threatened, but thrive here despite the expansion of the desert, which is driven by overconsumption of water, land erosion and climate change.

A barrier to desert expansion

According to Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF), approximately 23% of the country’s total area is at risk of desertification. Various studies identify Coquimbo as the most affected region in the country. This is where the southern limit of the Atacama Desert was initially established, along the Copiapó River. However, as the desert expands south, this boundary has become more blurred.

The history of Peña Blanca is one of a thriving rural community of peasants, “with hardworking people and important economic growth,” says Daniel Rojas, a Peña Blanca native and, until last year, president of the community. Today, this prosperity is no more.

These mesh fog nets collect up to 1,500 liters (400 gallons) of water daily. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

For decades, until the 1980s, the soils of Peña Blanca yielded wheat. “More than 50% of the community, which covers a surface of approximately 3,500 hectares [8,650 acres], was used to farm wheat,” says Rojas, who is also the president of the Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation, which funds structures that act as a barrier to stop the southward expansion of the desert.

“The wheat machines needed to remove vegetation and even stones to be able to use the threshers, the machines that prepare the ground for growing wheat, so the whole area became eroded,” says the geographer Nicolás Schneider, director of the foundation.

At the same time, the rains grew less frequent, Rojas says, and to top it all, free-trade deals meant Chile had begun importing wheat “at prices which were impossible to compete with.”

Life in Peña Blanca changed drastically by the year 2000, with the working-age population abandoning the village. “Without crops, with a huge decrease in animals, and without water, it’s difficult to stay in the countryside,” Rojas says.

Today, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Peña Blanca are older adults who have turned to sheep farming, although even this is a difficult livelihood because of the scarcity of water and therefore of fodder. Despite this, the community has managed to slowly adapt to its new reality, finding ways to obtain water and generate new income to keep living here.

A water trough where the water from the fog nets is channeled via pipes. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

Schneider recalls that in 2005, when Un Alto en el Desierto started working with the community, Peña Blanca “was in an almost terminal state in terms of their economic activities.” From that point on, Rojas saw the need to adapt. “We had to have another objective and consider another type of work because we couldn’t keep going as we were before.”

That same year, something happened that would change the fate of the community. Schoolchildren, teachers, legal representatives, neighbors and leaders went on a trip to the only place within the Peña Blanca territory where vegetation still grew. That was when the desire to protect the Cerro Grande was born, and the first thing they did was to fence off the zone to stop sheep and other animals entering and grazing on the few remaining plants.

At the same time, “we noticed the large amount of fog there [in the Cerro Grande], and we started, together with the community, to study the fog,” Schneider says. So they put up fog nets — large panels of mesh on which the water droplets in the fog condense — and saw results that exceeded their expectations: every square meter of netting could harvest up to 2,000 liters of water, or about 49 gallons per square foot, over the course of a year.

Today, there are 252 m2 of fog nets installed in what is now the Cerro Grande Ecological Reserve producing around 500,000 liters (132,000 gallons) of water every year. The community uses this water to irrigate the natural vegetation of the protected area, as well as the trees that they plant in reforestation projects in the area that houses native species.

A trough that collects water from the fog nets. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

“Today, someone who knew the area 17 or 20 years ago could notice the difference with a simple glance,” Rojas says. “You can see the recovery from the increased size of the bushes, the amount of new plants, and the presence of animals.”

Schneider says research done by CONAF has recorded at least 30 plant species in the area, native and endemic. One of these is the wild papaya tree (Vasconcellea chilensis), classed as endangered on Chile’s red list of threatened species. The reserve has also enabled the regeneration of Baccharis concava, a native shrub that grows in deteriorated terrain and helps other plants develop by improving soil quality, providing shade, and using its leaves as a natural fog collector.

The increase in vegetation has also enabled the arrival of wild animal species. More than 30 bird species can now be found here, many of them migratory, like the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), as well as four species of mammals and four of reptiles.

“We have regenerated a whole zone,” Schneider says, calling this a significant achievement toward the aims of the foundation.

Other uses of water recycling and fog

The fog water collected in the reserve has also allowed animals to quench their thirst. “The water is transported 2 or 3 kilometers [around 1.5 miles] through pipes under the mountain to water dispensers,” Rojas says. In the most critical periods of drought, the community has even been able to use this water for domestic tasks like laundry, dishwashing and toilet flushing, especially for households that usually depend on water trucked in from outside. Recently, the use of reverse osmosis and UV radiation has made the collected water also fit for drinking.

A sprinkler system for the native vegetation. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

All of these projects have allowed the inhabitants of Peña Blanca to build new and diverse sources of income little by little, in order to improve their quality of life and stay on their land, despite the current climate conditions.

The establishment of a beer brewery, for example, has generated jobs for the community, and the creation of the nature reserve has drawn tourists to the area, where they can visit the community and witness traditional festivals and food markets offering products made by the local women. “Now that we have a center that tourists can visit, it means that more resources come into the community, and this helps people have a better quality of life. We’ve achieved this step by step,” Rojas says.

In 2017, Un Alto en el Desierto started to recycle gray water — domestic wastewater from laundry, showers and handwashing — in eight areas of Coquimbo, including Peña Blanca.

“With this method, we can recycle up to 75% of the water used in a household every month,” Schneider says. The water recovered from this system is used to irrigate fruit trees and ornamental plants, meaning that it’s now possible for households to maintain trees and small gardens, which had previously been left to die due to lack of water, Rojas says.

Less theory, more action

Two hours southeast of Peña Blanca, in the community of Combarbalá, goat farmers have also come up with ingenious ways to defy the dry conditions.

Since 2017, various projects have been initiated in the area by organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). These are all aimed at establishing pilot projects for the capture and storage of water, as part of wider climate change adaptation efforts.

However, these were all meant to be one-time projects with no plans to sustain them over the long term, says Leticia Ramírez, president of the Coquimbo Regional Peasants Board. The board, representing the local community, managed to change this. “It took a lot of effort, but we were able to convince the institutions that we couldn’t carry on living through trials and pilots with everything ending up being abandoned afterward. It had to be permanent,” she says.

Households that typically relied on water trucked into the community from outside can now use water harvested from the fog. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

This is how four communities in Coquimbo have installed systems that aim to store water to make the most out of it. “Climate change in this part of the world means lower rainfall and more heat,” Schneider says. At the same time, he adds, it also implies that “when there is rainfall, it is much more concentrated, which causes other problems because the ground can’t absorb all the water, and it ends up creating the vicious circle of desertification.”

One of the initiatives devised to prevent erosion and make use of rainfall is the system of limanes. These are small stone walls built in a semicircle, which retain the water that runs down a slope. Behind each semicircle, different species of tree are planted, which serve as fodder for goats, and are irrigated by the water that gradually filters through the stone walls. “It’s a way of helping nature filter the water, and at the same time maintaining the species that have always been here and that people need in order to be able to stay in these territories,” Ramírez says.

One of the limanes built in the area to retain rainwater runoff. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

A similar initiative is the installation of gabions, wire mesh boxes filled with rocks and installed at different levels of a gorge. These allow goat farmers to retain water for their herds. “Climate change causes violent rain which sweeps away everything in its path,” Ramírez says, but the rocks in the gabions retain most of the earth and mud that would otherwise wash downslope, while letting the water pass through.

Last year, with the region seeing its first rainfall after 13 years of drought, these installations were put to the test more than ever, and passed. They also showed a benefit that hadn’t been previously considered, which is to keep roads clear of debris. “Where the water-retaining systems were not installed, the villages became isolated because of the earth, mud and rocks that blocked the roads,” Ramírez says. But where the systems were in place, the access roads weren’t affected.

However, funding for these initiatives was only meant to last for two years, Ramírez says. “We still haven’t managed to permanently become a part of public politics,” she says.

“Some say that the desert expands by a meter a year, others say by a football pitch per year, but there isn’t any serious political action to do anything about it,” Schneider says. “We’re fed up with tests, we need to make permanent installations.”

The evidence is clear. “Maybe the fog collectors are not 100% the solution,” Rojas says, “but they can significantly help to give us an important water source, especially in those places where it is running out more and more each day.”

Banner image of fog collectors installed by the community of Peña Blanca. Image courtesy of Un Alto en el Desierto Foundation.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Oct. 3, 2022.

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