Chile: Irrigation still off-line for Atacama growers
"The greatest damage is that the vines that survived were left without irrigation because all the channels were left covered or destroyed," says Alto del Carmen Table Grape Growers Association president Nicolás del Río.
His comment refers specifically to the San Félix Valley but the setting described is a common one right now for growers in the northern Chilean region of Atacama, named after the driest desert in the world. Road access only recently opened up in the valley and irrigation is still out of reach.
The region's drought problems have been a frequent discussion for many years, culminating in an announcement on March 24 that the government would spend US$169 million on a national drought plan, including dam renovation and construction.
But within less than two days of that pledge, the lack of water infrastructure in northern Chile meant towns, roads and farms were vastly unprepared for a bout of torrential rain that led to a disaster of flooding and mudslides in the regions of Atacama, Antofagasta and Coquimbo.
According to the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association (ASOEX), there are around 1,000 hectares of vegetable production in Atacama which are almost completely damaged, while surveys are underway to assess the effects on some 13,000 hectares of fruit-growing land.
"We are extremely worried by the situation that is affecting growers, exporters and workers in the Atacama region, as there are 6,000 workers that could be affected labor-wise in the short term, and the situation for vegetable pickers is also a concern as they work in their fields and in the fruit industry," ASOEX president Ronald Bown says.
Bown met with Agriculture Minister Carlos Furche yesterday to discuss the situation, and was told efforts were underway with the Ministry of Public Works to re-channel rivers so they can return to their natural states as soon as possible. In the meantime, channels are being cleaned to allow for water flow and an irrigation infrastructure recovery process is set to begin in the short-term.
Furche adds financial support will also be provided to farmers.
"There are some bonds that are already underway. Growers attended to by Indap have forgiveness for debts that should have been paid in 2015," Furche says.
"Fodder is being provided to animals, and a bond was made for re-establishing productive conditions, of up to CLP3 million (US$4,918) per producer; machinery for clearing roads and cleaning channels, as well as putting in place a series of measure through the National Irrigation Commission. We are putting in our best effort," the minister emphasizes.
While the government has highlighted its actions are focused on a prompt recovery, del Río emphasizes the call to recover irrigation is "for today".
"Otherwise the early table and pisco grape production will be lost, because damage to the channels affects all growers in Atacama," he says.
He says machinery is needed to re-channel rivers where streams have been displaced, and an 'immediate' support to recover infrastructure is required either with the help of the army in the context of a state of emergency or through the National Training and Employment Service (SENCE) to bring in workers.
"What is damaged in terms of plantations can be recovered with water, regardless of whether its covered up to halfway. The vine is noble and will defend itself, but without irrigaiton none will have the option to survive in the coming weeks," he says.
Fedefruta president Juan Carolus Brown Bauzá was expected to travel to Atacama today, together with representatives of the National Agriculture Service (SNA), in order to help fruit growers and workers affected by the disaster, hear testimonies, and support the survey of damages which will help for making decisions from the group's central office.
A release highlights the move is necessary to ensure irrigation works return to normal, so that the Atacama fruit industry does not 'disappear'.
"I would like to express our solidarity with our countrymen in the north of the country, for the difficult episode they are experiencing as a result of serious consequences from an unusual climatic phenomenon that has also affected important fruit-growing areas, and has especially affected the workers there whose future is still uncertain," Brown Bauzá said before the Labor Commission in the Chamber of Deputies.
"We will do everything possible as an association to help these people - who in many cases have lost everything - go forward, and it is our duty as businesspeople to give them the work that is in our power."
Related stories: Chile: Some growers could lose crops 'in a month' without irrigation