Are Avocados Responsible For Chile’s Worsening Drought?

In the courtyard of her home in Valparaiso, Chile, Dominga Mondaca pointed to the barren land where the water once irrigated strawberry and citrus plantations. She is one of over 600,000 people who need to be supplied with water since the country has been hit by the worst drought in 60 years.

“We had very little water for many years, but this year was the worst. It didn’t rain at all,” Dominga told FreshPlaza.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, around 106,000 animals have died due to lack of water and fodder, and about 37,000 farmers are now at risk. Photos of the area show parched and drylands where riverbeds previously ran; what used to be lush vegetation is now nothing more than rust-coloured fields.

Emergency measures

It has been estimated that around 76% of the population in Chile has been hit by the ongoing mega-drought, which led the government to declare an agricultural emergency in various regions. Part of the move meant that aid has been offered to farmers and those affected, which includes the provision of drinking water, building wells, improving irrigation, and medicine for animals.

Diálogo Chino reported that US$63 million has been allocated by the government for a series of these emergency measures, which today only reaches 40% of the country’s territory. Water companies have committed investments of more than US $5 billion for infrastructure improvements since pipes are said to be responsible for the loss of almost 35% of urban drinking water.

Furthermore, as part of their long-term plans, the government also intends to invest $6 billion to build 26 new reservoirs. This poses a dilemma that does not provide immediate relief, however, since such ventures took around 25 years for completion in the past.

Are avocados to blame for the drought?

In stark contrast, despite the arid landscapes, avocado plants remain lush, green, and abundant. Mass farming of the latest trendy staple has been partly blamed for the recent water shortage; thousands of hectares of the plant have continued to flourish through the drought.

According to the Water Footprint Network, avocados require 2,000 litres of water to yield just one kilogram – which is essentially just two medium-sized avocados. That is ten times the amount needed by tomatoes and four times the amount for oranges. With the insatiable and growing international demand for avocados, Chile has become one of its biggest exporters.

QZ reported that the UK’s imports of avocados more than doubled between 2013 and 2017, while European imports of Chilean avocados rose 300% between 2012 and 2017. Chile exported almost 224,000 metric tons of avocados to the world in 2017, with Europe being the biggest importer of about 60% of that total, which amounts to some 134,000 metric tons.

Additionally, it is believed that numerous avocado farms install well and pipes to divert water from nearby rivers to keep their crops hydrated. Consequentially, it has put a strain on the water supply and in the past, many villagers have been forced to either use contaminated water or go without.

The Dirección General de Aguas, Chile’s water authority, published its findings from an investigation, which revealed at least 65 illegal underground channels siphoned water from rivers to avocado plantations. The inquiry resulted in some senior businessmen and politicians being convicted of the illegal theft of water.

Avocado exports continue to boom

The avocado industry in Chile, however, is continuing to do business as normal. Last week, the Chilean Avocado Importers Association announced its plans for the second year of partnership with pro golfer Joaquin Niemann. At 20-years old, Nieman is the first PGA Tour winner from Chile, as well as the youngest international winner since 1923. It has been reported that Niemann will be the official brand ambassador for Avocados from Chile and will be involved in the social media and advertising aspects of the brand.

In a statement, Karen Brux, managing director for the Chilean Avocado Importers Association, said “In our marketing approach from Avocados from Chile, we strive to share the unique qualities of Chile that contribute to the supply of consistently great avocados, and we can’t think of a more authentic way to showcase the country than partnering with Joaquin.”