Northern Chile targets water conservation to beat drought

Chilean Andes reservoir water shutterstock

Capturing water from melting snow in the Andes is key to battling drought

Chile drought avocado trees 2015
Avocado trees in Coquimbo have been cut right back; still alive they use minimal water

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The ongoing impact of a seven-year-long drought has prompted growers in northern Chile to examine new ways of retaining and conserving water. Produce Business UK investigates

For the director of Fedefruta (the Chilean Fruit Producers Federation), María Inés Figari, the onset of the drought that has affected so much of northern and central Chile over the past seven years has also coincided with her own involvement in the organisation. Fedefruta’s first female director in its 30 years of history, Figari was prompted to take a more active role in the association by the need to obtain greater support from Chile’s government for drought-hit growers.

“As a consequence of the drought, we have come together in Fedefruta to be able to have representation in Santiago and communicate to the government the agricultural situation in Region IV,” she says. “For this reason, I entered the board of directors of Fedefruta to be able to deliver this message to Santiago of what this means to all of us in this region as fruit exporters.”

A table grape and citrus grower herself in the province of Coquimbo, Figari is also the director of Chile’s National Society of Agriculture and president of the Northern Agricultural Society, where she is the first to hold the position in the group’s more than 100 years of existence.

The impact on fruit

Speaking about the last 12 months, Figari says the situation has been far from easy for growers in northern Chile. Producers have, she explains, had to battle with extreme drought followed by very intense rainfall, which has caused loss of land, crops and human life; in the latter case, largely as a result of the onset of the El Niño phenomenon.

Although Figari says growers have been able to gather together sufficient water to be to continue cultivating crops, she says the drought led to a considerable drop in production, principally due to the effect on sizing, with much of the fruit failing to reach the sizes required for exportation.

Considerable crop losses were also recorded in cultivated land across northern Chile. “Here, in Region IV, we normally cultivate 120,000 hectares – we finished only cultivating 53,000 hectares, so the losses have been significant,” she says.

Although avocados were initially the most affected product, Figari says in the end the drought was so extreme that everything was affected, not any product more than another. “With avocados, we ended up practically having to cut down the trees, but table grapes and clementines and other products also suffered damage,” she recalls.

“At the end of the day, water is the biggest component of fruit and logically not having that element meant that we did not achieve a good result.  

“Fruit comprises 90% water and having water is essential to be able to cultivate it.”

However, Figari believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. To date, she claims the region has not suffered any further weather events that could lead to crop losses, meaning that for the time being the 2015/16 production season looks likely to be a positive one.

Climate change is now a reality

Of course, exports inevitably fell as a result of the drought and Figari says Fedefruta is currently evaluating the losses that growers in the region suffered, including as a result of the severe rainfall produced by El Niño in August.

“In general, across Chile – from the north to the south and the whole length of the country – we have suffered an extreme drought,” she says. “In the south, where there are animals, it also produced an extremely serious problem – the animals did not have enough to eat.

“Today, we can rest easy and be thankful that we have water. But it has left us with the knowledge that we need to be much more careful with water.

“From now going forward, we are going to always be far more attentive because this is a situation of climate change.”

Figari says Fedefruta has carried out analyses and studies to see how growers in northern Chile can save water, including planning – together with the Chilean government – the construction of a new dam, with a high capacity for storing snows that arrive from the Andean Cordillera, as well as heavy rainfall.

In common with Fedefruta, Lina Arrieta, president of northern Chilean growers’ association Apeco, says working to conserve water is of ever more importance to producers in the region.

The drought in the north of the country, Arrieta says, has been related to the terrain in northern Chile where growers are attempting to produce crops in a near-desert climate where it rains very little.

“Especially in our region of Atacama, we have fought against the desert, trying to cultivate crops in two marvellous valleys – Huasco y Copiacó,” she explains. Comprising 32 companies – the majority of whom are producers of table grapes – Apeco largely draws its membership from the Copiacó Valley where 8,000ha of table grapes are cultivated, some 50% of which comes under the umbrella of the association.

As a result of the drought, Arrieta says all of these hectares are at risk of degeneration.

To alleviate the situation, she says Apeco – together with the University of Chile – has been carrying out investigations into how to become more efficient in its water usage.

As well as looking at the use of subterranean water, Apeco is also examining how to improve the usage of surface water by becoming more efficient in water collection.

Suppliers will remain attentive to the UK

Although Figari at Fedefruta says the climate remains Chilean growers’ principal challenge, she emphasises that the country’s fresh produce sector also needs to compete with strong competition from mining.

Despite the fact that Chile’s mining industry is also not having the best of times – largely as a result of the low price of copper – Figari says it still poses a significant challenge to the fresh produce sector’s ability to attract sufficient manpower, given that it typically pays higher wages than growers. Another major concern is having access to sufficiently well-qualified employees, as Figari explains that having qualified people is increasingly important to the sector.

Complying with export guidelines has been crucial to Chile’s success in overseas markets and Figari says assistance from UK grocery retailers has been a major factor in achieving this result.

“The UK is a very important market for us because the UK was the one that provided us with the guidelines as to how to work together to become good growers,” she explains. “The UK showed us which path we needed to take and how to keep moving forward to meet environmental and social requirements.”

However, Figari admits that a great deal of the volume produced in northern Chile over the last 12 months have been shipped to North America rather than the UK, largely as a consequence of the drought.

“When the fruit receives less water, you need to find the shortest possible route to market and the North American market is half the distance of the route to Europe,” she says.

Despite this, Figari is keen to emphasise that the UK market remains very attractive for Chilean exporters. “The UK has been a very important benchmark for the Chilean fresh fruit sector and we always have the possibility to being able to talk with the UK supermarkets, who have provided an incomparable level of security in terms of orders and prices for Chile,” she concludes.

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Read the other articles in PBUK's Sourcing Spotlight on Chile:

Chile is not about to forget importance of UK fruit buyers

The UK remains an important market for Chilean fruit

Blueberries from Chile looks for convenient boost in UK

Chilean kiwifruit breeding programme looks to supplement Hayward strength

Chilean vegetable association seeks long-term UK trade deals

Chilean walnuts and prunes have UK niches in sight

Gesex to offer varietal and quality improvements for UK buyers

Chile’s grape sector looks to expanded UK future with fresh varieties 
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