Almost a million people still without water in Santiago, Chile, after rain, landslides pollute rivers

Just under a million people are still without running water in Santiago, Chile, after heavy rains and landslides in the nearby Andes mountains polluted water sources with mud and debris over the weekend.

In 30 C temperatures, as many as 4 million people were without water service earlier today

People line up for drinking water under the watchful eye of police in Santiago, Chile, on Monday. Some of them waited for hours in 30 C temperatures. (Marie-Armelle Lafaury/CBC)

Just under a million people were still without running water in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday after heavy rains and landslides in the nearby Andes mountains polluted water sources with mud and debris over the weekend.

As temperatures reached 30 C in Santiago during Chile's late summer, millions of people have been lining up at more than 200 water distribution points. As many as four million people were without water service earlier Tuesday.

They came with pails, jugs, bottles and even coolers … anything they could get their hands on to fill with water. Some of them waited for hours under the sun.

On Sunday morning, heavy rainfall in the nearby Andes mountains triggered landslides, which caused rivers, including the Maipo, Santiago's main source of drinking water, to overflow and turn brown.

I've had enough of this. It's not the first time it's happened. They need to fix the situation.- Emilio Vasquez, resident

That's when officials with the privately owned water company Aguas Andinas had to turn off the taps. They were still working to restore service and hoped to have it fully operational by nightfall Tuesday.

In one Santiago neighbourhood, two police officers kept watch over huge water tanks. They were limiting those in line to 15 litres each.

"We managed to take a shower yesterday morning, because we heard on the news the water would be cut off,"  said Maria Elena, who was lined up with her two children.  "But today … no, not yet." She laughed.

Another man stood behind her with five bottles lined up on the ground. "We're making do," he said. "I just hope our employers are understanding about the situation. I've had to line up several times today."

The water in the Tobalaba Canal, one of the waterways in Santiago, turned brown Monday with mud and debris from the Andes mountains. (Marie-Armelle Lafaury/CBC)

On Monday, many people headed to supermarkets and loaded up on bottled water. By Tuesday, shelves were empty.

The regional governor, Claudio Orrego, told Chilean media more storms are in the forecast. Orrego said that could lead to further landslides and further delays for the return of full water service.

The raging waters in river valleys also cut off roads for people trying to make their way home to Santiago as the summer holidays came to an end.

On Sunday, a 12-year-old girl was killed when the car she was travelling in was swept away by a landslide south of Santiago in the O'Higgins region.

Two more people drowned in the rising waters in the Cajon del Maipo, a river valley near the capital.

A woman carries bottles of water during a supply cut in Santiago Sunday. More than 1.4 million homes the city were affected. Heavy rains in three regions of central Chile left four dead and many more missing. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier Tuesday, 19 people were listed as missing. But as people get in touch with their families, that number has been steadily dropping. Authorities say they now have a list of 11 people still unaccounted for.

Several homes in the path of the landslides were also destroyed.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet tweeted that all efforts were being made to re-open roads into some of those communities that have been cut off and to get the water supply up and running again.

The government also told businesses to stay closed if they didn't have water reserves and couldn't guarantee basics such as working toilets for their employees.

That meant many offices stayed closed on Monday.

People brought whatever containers they could find in Santiago on Sunday to more than 200 water distribution points. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

Most restaurants were also forced to shut their doors. Hospitals operated normally as they have a 48-hour water supply, but the number of visitors was limited to one per patient to reduce water use, and officials said some surgeries might have to be postponed as water supplies start to run low.

Not everyone was unhappy. This is the first week back to school after the summer break for most elementary and high school students. Many of them will get an extra day or two of holidays.

People were criticizing the water company. This is the second time in less than a year that it has cut off water service. Last April, heavy rains caused flooding in the capital and residents were without drinking water for several days.


Emilio Vasquez, one of the many people lining up to fill water bottles, said, "I've had enough of this. It's not the first time it's happened. They need to fix the situation."

Aguas Andinas responded to the criticism Tuesday. It said it has invested heavily in improving its infrastructure. But it says none of the new holding tanks and filtration plants will be ready until 2019.

These recent floods follow months of drought in Chile. Officials says the storms are an unusual weather pattern at this time of year.

As a result of the drought, the country has recently been dealing with the worst wildfire situation in years. The fires burned for weeks and destroyed entire towns. The situation was just brought under control two weeks ago.


Marie-Armelle Lafaury worked for the CBC for over 20 years, as a television and radio reporter in Winnipeg and Edmonton and then as radio producer in Toronto. She has been based in Santiago for the past two years.