SANTIAGO, Chile — Here in Chile, in the far south of the Southern Hemisphere, it has been the summer of our discontent. Never have so many natural catastrophes in a row hit this country at the end of the world. For once, it is not the earthquakes that have assailed us since time immemorial or the tsunamis that often follow, devastating land and coast, mountainscapes and ocean. This time, our unprecedented woes have all been man-made.
First were the forest wildfires, mostly to the south of Santiago, the worst in recorded history. Countless acres have been burned to cinders, killingpeople and livestock, leveling a whole town, destroying centenarian trees as well as newer woodlands meant for export. The conflagration was not controlled until supertanker planes that could carry tons of water were flown in from abroad.
For those not directly threatened by the raging blazes, there were other costs. The air here in Santiago, befouled with smoke and ash, became unbreathable for weeks, a situation aggravated by inordinately high temperatures that did not diminish even at night, as was habitually the case, when we used to have the chance to cool off and face the next day refreshed and energized.
We prayed for rain, though we are aware that it never rains during the summer months. When our prayers were answered, it was not what we had expected. A deluge descended, not in the zones where the fires continued to flare up now and then, but deep in the Andes and its glaciers, and with such fury that rivers overflowed and avalanches of mud and debris descended on villages and valleys, roads and bridges.
As such a downpour had never come to pass before in the summer, the water-processing plants were entirely unprepared. This left millions of Chileans without water in our homes, unable to drink, cook, clean, bathe. It is as if we had been cursed with a plague: stray dogs expiring of thirst on the streets and plants withering and lines of people with buckets, wash basins, bottles, standing endlessly in front of emergency distribution centers.