The river in Petorca, Chile, is completely dry.
The small, poor settlements that line Petorca’s River Ligua once relied on the river for its source of water. But for the past 15 years, residents here have turned to delivery trucks that bring water from elsewhere. Unlike the running water they once enjoyed, the communities’ water now is stagnant, limited and often contaminated.
The problems brought by the continuing drought have only been compounded by the ever-growing threat of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 328,000 and killed over 14,000 people worldwide.
Chile’s Ministry of Health has instructed people to stay at home and wash their hands, but for those living in the country’s drought-ridden areas, even such a simple task seems nearly impossible.
Claudia* lives near the parched basin in Petorca. She says every day is a struggle to ensure she has water for her family.
“I am exhausted,” Claudia tells Al Jazeera by phone.
They say you have to wash your hands. What can I do? I disinfect everything, absolutely everything, and collect the little water I have so that the kids can wash.
Claudia, a resident of Petorca
The water from her taps comes out in drips, slowly filling the sink, she says. It takes her one hour to wash the dishes. Sometimes, the trucks do not arrive to fill her village’s water cistern, leaving her community without water for days.
A mother of two young girls, she is preoccupied with the threat of coronavirus.
“They say you have to wash your hands. What can I do?” she says. “I disinfect everything, absolutely everything, and collect the little water I have so that the kids can wash.”
She sent her eldest daughter to live with her mother in a nearby city for the time being.
“For sanitary reasons,” she says. “My mother has water.”
Avocado production, Petorca’s main industry, is the cause of the drought, local activists say. Most Chilean avocados are exported, meaning increased international demand for avocados has led to a proliferation of plantations in the area.
Each tree needs 66.6 litres (about 17.5 gallons) of water a day – more than the 50-litre (13-gallon) quota of water reserved for residents, who often do not receive their full allowance.
A man cycles past a sign that reads ‘No more water theft’, along a road in Petorca town [File: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters]
Agricultural companies operating in the province have been accused by locals of illegally diverting water from the Petorca’s rivers, driving the region’s drought. Agricultural organisations claim they are only using legally sourced water, but Petorca’s local government has begun to dismantle illegal pipelines and fine the corresponding companies.
“It is not drought, it’s theft,” says Nicolas Quiroz, a member of the Movement for Water and Land Rights (MAT), a nongovernmental organisation.
Quiroz, who lives in Petorca, says the government has been “absent” in the crisis, and believes it has done too little, too late.
“We are in a health emergency and we aren’t able to look after ourselves as a consequence of being denied our right to water,” he says.
Maria Paz Bertoglia, an epidemiologist at the Universidad de Chile, says the lack of running water in the country’s dry zones which extend to provinces north of Petorca, is a cause for concern.
“It is a sanitary and social preoccupation – not just to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but lots of illnesses,” she tells Al Jazeera.
Bertoglia says access to clean water “should be a guaranteed right for everyone in our country”.