6 ways to combat drought and desertification

In Chile, communities are successfully facing the challenge of water scarcity.

Photos: UNDP Chile

For central Chile, the decade from 2003 to 2013 was the driest in 150 years. Climate change, coupled with agricultural and livestock practices that have progressively degraded the land, has led to desertification. This affects 79 percent of Chile’s territory to some degree and is a major problem for many people living in rural areas.

Combarbalá is one of the areas of Chile affected by drought and desertification. Photo: Sergio García/UNDP Chile

With the aim of supporting these communities, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union (EU) partnered in 2007 to promote the Programme to Combat Desertification .

Eighty-eight communities have been able to design and implement projects to reverse the impact of their activities on the environment and improve their quality of life. More than 4,700 families and 19,000 people have been able to strengthen their ability to adapt to the effects of climate change. How did they do it?

Sustainable energy

Marjorie Figueroa is one of the entrepreneurs who offer prepared dishes and crafts in Paine, 45 km south of Santiago. For a long time, she and her colleagues turned to firewood as fuel, a near and accessible resource. However, they realized that this was depleting their native forest and polluted the air they breathed.

Marjorie Figueroa and other entrepreneurs developed renewable energy sources. Photo: Nelson González

The local Board of Neighbours came together and designed a project aimed at micro-enterprises in the area, a source of income for many families in the community. Six of them, managed by 24 enterprising women, were able to build and install technologies that rely on solar energy or use firewood more efficiently. This allows them to save on energy and produce in a more environmentally friendly way, serving as a model for other communities and micro-enterprises.

“Now I have a venture where I grow native trees and medicinal herbs, which supports my entire family. And that is a source of pride, because it gives you reasons to believe that you can do things. We won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Many times I have been told, ‘no’, and that has given me the impulse to ask: ‘And why not? Why not, if it can be done?’ That’s what’s important,” says Marjorie.
Luis Plaza installed a system of biofilters in his house and hopes that it can be an inspiration for other families. Photo: Cristian Martínez

Water recycling

For decades, in La Ligua de Cogotí, a village about 300 km north of Santiago, hardly any water has fallen beyond what is brought by the humidity of the mist. Many families have had to abandon traditional practices — such as having an orchard on their grounds to meet their own needs — because they have been forced to reserve water exclusively for human consumption.

The family of Luis Plaza was one of the 10 who joined forces to learn about and gain access to the materials and technical advice to install a novel system of biofilters in their homes. Water used to wash dishes and shower is purified, and 70 percent can be reused for irrigation of plants and trees, increasing food sovereignty and household incomes.

Biofilters allow water to be recycled to irrigate family gardens. Photos: UNDP Chile
“We have some neighbours who did not trust biofilters, because they did not see clearly that they were going to work. But now everyone is seeing that we are reusing water that was lost before; we do more with the same water as before. This will serve as a mirror for the other neighbours, “he says.

Pure mountain water

In the neighbouring community of Los Sapos, María Olivera has witnessed how many of the water sources that supplied the village have dried up. This also entails an enormous expenditure and logistical effort for the Municipality, which supplies the six families of the village with 1,000 litres of water per household each week.

With greater availability of water, communities can develop agriculture without problems. Photo: UNDP Chile

Together with her neighbours, María designed a project to bring water from a nearby hillside, channel it from the top of the mountain range more than 2,000 metres high, and store it in large tanks. Although the effort was great, the solution has enhanced water security and strengthened community cohesion.

“Now, I can safely give our animals water to drink, water the flowers in my garden, keep the floors clean … So we do not run out of reserves, and we can supplement what we get with the water we receive every week. Without this help, things would have been very difficult,” says María.
Maria coordinated the project in her community, from the arrival of the materials until the water sprouted again in her garden. Photos: UNDP Chile

Fog, source of life

The lack of rainfall — which has halved from 1900 levels — and desertification led the Peña Blanca Agricultural Community to think of alternatives to preserve the rich vegetation of Cerro Grande, 400 km from Santiago. With support from UNDP, they created a 106-hectare reserve where they introduced several native plants.

But how to supply this reserve with water in the face of such scarcity? By taking advantage of something all around them: fog. A fog catcher system converts this common weather phenomenon into water and stores it in accumulator tanks. The water can be used to irrigate vegetation and develop new productive initiatives, such as the production of the first craft beer with mist water, presented at the Milan Expo in 2015.

Daniel Rojas is president of the community and proudly shows the fog-catching system. Photo: Daniel Rojas
“We understood that the mist can be an important source of water, since it has also been for the animals and, lately — due to the great shortage — for domestic use. We have implemented a centre for fog studies and have been able to participate in various environmental education activities,” says Daniel Rojas, president of the Peña Blanca Agricultural Community.

Rain water

Not only is fog a source of life for Chilean communities, so is rain. Twenty-two families have installed rainwater harvesting systems in their homes, using what they collect to drink and irrigate their crops in greenhouses.

Twenty-two families installed rainwater harvesting systems linked to greenhouses. Photos: Sergio García/UNDP Chile

In three months, they accumulate up to 4,000 litres of water that is then conveyed to a greenhouse.

Vitalicia, her husband and daughters now have a greenhouse at home, where they can plant vegetables for their own consumption. Photo: Sergio García / UNDP Chile

“Before we planted little, because we hardly had water. But now, with the system and the greenhouse, we can use the water we harvest to drink and water the plants. It’s a big change,” says Vitalicia Muñoz, a farmer.

Climate-resilient seeds

The trafkintü, a ceremony practiced by Mapuche Indians since ancient times, consisted of the exchange of seeds and associated knowledge among different communities. This practice has been resumed, bringing together hundreds of people struggling to combat the effects of climate change and conserve biodiversity.

UNDP photos

Native seeds have been handed down from one generation to the next, and they have adapted to different climate conditions. “I take about 20 to 30 new seeds, which I hope can adapt to the conditions we have. But I also take know-how, since we all come from places that have different, but connected, environmental conditions,” says Flavia Bustos, an entrepreneur.

Using simple and innovative practices and with active community participation, it is possible to mitigate the effects of climate change and better adapt to it, protect the habitat against land degradation and drought, and increase people’s well-being.

Photo: UNDP Chile