National Geographic : 1973 Oct
Water-or the lack of it-holds the key to Antofagasta's future. The growing city in creasingly needs more than the pipeline can supply. Once, city fathers envisioned a nu clear desalinization plant, but Chile's finan cial woes make that an improbable dream. Now officials talk of solar distillation. Cer tainly the city receives sunshine to spare. Meanwhile, they do what they can to con serve the precious liquid. A sewage plant, now under construction, will send partially purified water to fire hydrants. Alfonso showed me an irrigated three-acre plot where CORFO is growing vegetables. "We irrigated 25 acres here a few years ago," he said. "But so much water could not be spared; the people needed it." If water in the city is in short supply, out in the Atacama Desert it is almost nonexistent; indeed, rain has seldom if ever been recorded in some areas. We drove northeast next morn ing toward the oasis city of Calama, across a moonscape of grays and tans. Only a few miles out of Antofagasta we came to a marker attesting that the Tropic of Capricorn passed through this spot; we were entering the tropics. Dust swirled into the car, parching lips, clogging cameras, even finding its way into wristwatches. This arid wasteland was virtually ignored until the 19th century. But in 1830 immense reserves of sodium nitrate were discovered. Peru, Bolivia, and Chile shared this desert Stevedore smooths a truckful of U. S . corn, just off-loaded at Valparaiso, Chile's chief port, where other freighters wait to discharge their cargoes (below). They face delays of up to three weeks because of inadequate dock facilities. With Chil ean farms producing less, the nation imports more than twice as much food as it did in 1970.