Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 23 May 2009 12:01 UK

Chile faces climate change challenge

By James Painter
BBC Latin America analyst

Chilean vineyard in the central zone

Chile has enjoyed one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America in recent years, largely based on a booming export sector.

But new studies by Chilean scientists suggest climate change could pose huge challenges for the country.

The scientists say their models show projected temperature increases of at least 1C to 1.5C and a drop in rainfall of at least 10 to 15% in the next 40 years.

These changes could have a particular impact on agriculture in Chile's central zone, home to a large part of the country's population.

"Agriculture is the most exposed sector, particularly the forestry sector, and the vines and fruits in the central region which are reliant on irrigation schemes," Professor Fernando Santibanez from the University of Chile told the BBC.

Wine woes

Chile is the world's largest exporter of copper, but wine, fruit and forestry products feature strongly, accounting for about a quarter of its exports.

Prof Santibanez says Chile's world-famous wines could be particularly vulnerable to the expected changes in the climate.


"Vines are sensitive to heat stress," he says. "Hotter temperatures can cause too fast a ripening process which can affect productivity and the quality of the wine."

The Merlot grape is thought to be amongst those sensitive to changes in the climate.

More generations of harmful insects created by a temperature increase of just 1C could also affect grape production.

The value of Chile's wine exports has boomed in the last 20 years from about $2m (£1.2m) to $1.5bn last year. The UK, for example, now imports more wine from Chile than from South Africa.

"There is no doubt we are worried about global warming," says Ricardo Poblete, a director of the Chilean Wine Corporation.

"But there are plenty of ways of adapting."

Chile's central valley is particularly suitable to vine growing as it has many days of uninterrupted sunshine, cool but not frosty nights, and plenty of natural water supplies from melting snow on the Andes mountains. A change in the temperature could alter that.

"Some companies like Concha y Toro are buying land in more southern areas," says Mr Poblete. "Climate change is one of the factors behind the change."

However, Mr Poblete says that in the future, vine growing could also shift more towards the Pacific Ocean or towards the Andean foothills in search of cooler temperatures.

Water worries

Another area of great concern is the long-term availability of water.

Climate change is not a problem for the future... It's a problem right now
Constance Nalegach
Chile's UN representative

As in other Andean countries, the rate at which many of Chile's glaciers are melting has increased significantly in recent years, due mainly to temperature rises.

Climate scientists say Chile is probably less dependent on glacial melt for water supplies than some areas of neighbouring Peru or Bolivia.

However, they worry that the combination of more demand, less rainfall, less melting snow, and less water trapped in glaciers could combine to cause a serious decline in water availability, particularly in the summer months.

Sebastian Vicuna, executive director of the Global Change Research Centre at the Catholic University in Santiago, has calculated that the Maipo River - by far the largest source of irrigation and drinking water for the central region - could suffer a severe decline in its flow in the summer months.

Based on hydrological simulations, he says that by 2065 the water in the river could have fallen by 70%, from 170 cubic metres per second to no more than 60.

"We are particularly concerned about the impact of global warming on our hydroelectric supplies," he told the BBC. "More than half the energy supply to central Chile comes from hydroelectricity generated by water coming from three basins where there will be much less water."

Energy crisis

Chile is only responsible for a tiny amount of the world's total emissions of greenhouse gases. But when expressed in per capita terms, the country is one of the worst in Latin America.

Ice from the San Rafael glacier falls into the water in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, at the Laguna San Rafael National Park, 1300 km south of Santiago, Oct 2007
The rate at which Chile's glaciers are melting has increased in recent years

Critics point out that Chile is currently committed to building coal-fired power plants. This is partly a response to Argentina's almost complete halting of gas exports to its neighbour, due to its own energy shortages.

According to the National Energy Commission, coal will account for 25% of Chile's electricity supplies by 2020, and emissions will rise fourfold from the current level of 70 million tonnes a year to 300 million by 2030.

However, government supporters say it is beginning to take climate change seriously. It launched a national action plan for climate change in December, and a new environment ministry was approved this month in the lower house of Congress.

Constance Nalegach, Chile's negotiator at the UN's climate change talks, says her country is prepared to set its own emissions targets, but also wants to see sweeping cuts from industrialised countries.

"Climate change is not a problem for the future," she says. "It's a problem right now."

Professor Santibanez is confident Chile can adapt to the future climate, as long as it starts planning and investing now.

"We need more early warning weather systems, better institutional co-ordination and more planned water management," he says.

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