War for water in Chile's Atacama Desert: Vines or mines?

By Katia Moskvitch
BBC News, Atacama Desert, Chile


Chile's Copiapo Valley should be a picturesque grape-growing region. Instead, there is mile after mile of rows of withered vines along this stretch of the Atacama Desert.

Not so long ago these vineyards in northern Chile were green, supplied with water from an underground reservoir.

But water is a rarity here, in the driest desert of the world. Not least because agriculture is not the only industry competing for it.

Take a look at the Atacama from an aeroplane window: everywhere you will see the hallmarks of one particular activity, copper mining.

Huge machinery is drilling deep holes, digging and sifting through the orange-red earth and rocks.

Chile is renowned for its copper mines, which produce a third of global output. The country is the world's largest exporter of the red metal.

Its economy depends heavily on copper exports to Europe, the United States and, increasingly, India and China.

In total, copper makes up about 70% of all Chilean exports. Agriculture amounts to just 25%.

image captionCopiapo Valley is a refreshing oasis of green in the dusty and rocky Atacama Desert

And more mines are being established every month.

Two years ago, Copiapo was briefly a the centre of the world's attention, when 33 miners were trapped for 69 days in one of its copper mines. But the mining boom has continued.

Just outside Copiapo town, a whole new mountain has recently appeared - one that is not on the map. It is made entirely from the landfill earth coming out of the mines.

So many people are coming to work in the mines that Copiapo is a permanent construction site. New buildings keep popping up, like mushrooms after an August rain.

But to function, mines need water - the same water used by small growers to irrigate their vineyards.

Family business

As Alfonso Prohens lovingly turns over a big, heavy bunch of grapes and removes an odd dry leaf on the vine, he points at the rocky land a few kilometres down the road, toward the mountains.

The vineyard where we stand, with its 130 hectares of several varieties of table grape, used to be as rocky as that 60 years ago, he says.

image captionEven large fruit producers such as Subsole prefer Copiapo Valley to central Chile

His father, Don Alfonso Senior, moved here in 1947, cleared the ground, used horses to remove the rocks and turned this part of the Atacama green.

He eventually passed the land to his five sons, Alfonso Junior and Rafael among them.

Their businesses expanded, like that of other growers in the region. Right now the Prohens family owns 800 hectares of land.

The conditions in Copiapo Valley are so favourable that even big commercial Chilean fruit producers like Subsole have set up plantations here.

image captionAlfonso Prohens continued the family business of growing table grapes

And although the agricultural industry in Chile's north is considerably smaller than in the centre, these small green valleys are famous for high-quality table grapes that yield good prices abroad.

Tough decisions

But things changed the day Rafael received a phone call from a mining company called Lumina Copper, which had started digging not far from his vineyard.

"They wanted my water, wanted me to sell it to them, so that they pump it directly to where the mines are," says Rafael.

"At first, I hesitated. But when they named the price, it was so attractive that I agreed."

He says that prices for a year's water rights in the Valley range from $80,000 (£51,000) to $120,000 for a litre per second. That's as much as one needs to irrigate one hectare of vineyard.

It's also equivalent to how much it costs to grow one hectare of table grapes over 15 years. That makes selling the water a rather attractive deal for the growers.

Rafael gave up as much water as he thought he had left over. But he miscalculated, and as a result today he is short of water to properly irrigate all his vines.

He estimates that more than 30% of Copiapo's growers have sold water - some or all of it - to the mining companies.

Those who sold all the water left their vineyards to die and moved elsewhere.

Rafael's brother, Alfonso, decided not to sell.

"It's my father's business, and I want to continue growing grapes here," he says.

"But it is becoming harder and harder - and if a few years back I had to pump water from some 60m underground, now I have to dig and get it at over 140m.

"Other growers have to dig even deeper. With these costs, it is becoming harder every year to stay in business."

He sighs.

"Sometimes, offers from mining companies are so attractive, that I must say, I too have doubts… ."

War for water

Mining allows Chile to pocket huge amounts of money, courtesy of Mother Nature.

image captionFor the past few years, the area around Copiapo has enjoyed a mining boom

It is difficult to fight it - and certainly impossible for small growers to survive alone.

But the state is aware of the problem.

During the past few months the government has been trying to come up with legislation over the use of water as a resource, explains Gabriel Rodriguez, director of energy, science, technology and innovation at Chile's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Here in Chile people are saying that the next war will be about water," he says.

"But we need to have an equilibrium here - a political equilibrium, as it's a matter of public policy and legislation for the future."

"If Chile wants to continue to be a mining country, but at the same time to be a country that has an extra value - in terms of income that comes from agriculture or from other sectors like services - we need to make sure that agriculture has enough water and protect the resource for the growers."

And although mining companies are very powerful, they must look for other sources of water, he insists - such as desalinisation of water from the ocean.

Because if they do not, agriculture in northern Chile will be at risk.

While the government is busy talking in the capital Santiago, Alfonso Prohens closes the gates of his vineyard.

He knows that many of his close neighbours in the Copiapo Valley have already abandoned their land.

Dry, bare vines along the snaking country road are a constant reminder of powerful mining companies winning this war.

But as he looks at the Atacama mountains, at the setting sun, huge and incredibly red, he says that he is not ready to give up.

At least, not yet.

image captionCopiapo Valley is famous for growing different varieties of excellent quality table grapes

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