Climate change and differential water access in Santiago, Chile: a critical approach to climate attribution


Linking the discrete socio-economic impacts of extreme weather events to climate change is a rapidly growing area of academic and policy interest (IPCC 2022). Hydroclimatic attribution studies evaluate the contribution of anthropogenic climate change to the length or intensity of an extreme weather event or broader hydroclimatic shift. These studies feature heavily in causal claims made in public discourse, media coverage of disasters, and climate litigation on the relationship between the climate crisis and its impacts on lives and communities (Stuart-Smith et al., 2021a). Largely missing from the attribution research approach, however, is attention to the socio-political co-production of the disaster. The politics of attributing water scarcity and patterns of water (in)access to climate change, and how this narrative may serve certain actors more than others or deepens existing hydro-social relations is likewise missing.

Decades of scholarship in human geography and political ecology offer a clear warning of the dangers of dismissing human vulnerability and over-emphasizing the biophysical contribution to disasters (O’Keefe, Westgate & Wisner, 1976). This body of work demonstrates that the discourse of disasters as ‘acts of god’ allows the root causes of human vulnerability, such as poverty, resource deprivation, and inequality, to persist unaddressed (Taylor, 2015). A handful of studies have begun integrating these political ecology perspectives to critique the current climate-centric attribution paradigm and argue for a vulnerability-centric attribution discourse (Lahsen & Ribot, 2022; Raju, Body & Otto, 2022).

The central Andes is a key region for attribution research because glaciers make up a large share of societal water supply and their recent rapid retreat has been attributed closely to climate change (Mukhopadhyay, 2012; Stuart-Smith et al., 2021b). Regional Andes literature documents the unique socio-economic, geographical, and cultural factors that shape human vulnerability to environmental and climatic change in the region (Eakin & Lemos, 2006; Carey, 2010; Mills-Novoa et al., 2017). Central Chile has additionally faced an unprecedented ‘mega-drought’ since 2010.

Kate Altemus Cullen
Publication date: 
November 1, 2023
Publication type: 
Student Research