SANTIAGO, Chile – Rapid runoff of rainfall near Santiago, Chile, has paradoxically left millions of the capital city's residents without water.
The rains caused flooding and destructive mudslides on vulnerable mountainsides near the city over the weekend, killing at least three people, with 19 more reported missing.
The mudslides and floods in turn contaminated the Maipo River, a main source of drinking water for much of Santiago and the surrounding metropolitan region. The water utility Aguas Andinas, whose plants draw from the river, suspended service on Sunday for about 1.5 million customers, affecting a total of about 5 million residents.
The utility began gradually restoring service to some areas after the river water reaching one of the utility's plants cleared up faster than expected. But other restoration work was slowed by continuing rain, and most of the affected population was still without water service Monday afternoon.
Aguas Andinas said Monday that service had been restored to about 50 percent of the homes and businesses that suffered cuts.
In another paradox, the mudslides were caused in part by very dry weather. Before the storm, the region had been seared by drought, and huge forest fires swept through several areas in south-central Chile over the past month, including Cajón del Maipo, the valley in the Andean foothills southeast of Santiago where the Maipo River flows.
"Although the rainfall was only approximately 5 millimeters [about one-fifth of an inch], the drought, fires and everything else we underwent last week has made the area much more fragile, facilitating these mudslides," said Ricardo Toro, director of the National Emergency Office.
Roads in the valley were cut Sunday by slides and debris, isolating almost 400 tourists and residents. Emergency officials were able to evacuate an additional 200 to temporary shelters while they worked to restore road access.
Monday was the first day of the academic year for many public schools in Chile, but the government suspended classes in the areas of the capital region that were without drinking water.
Heavy rains last April also caused flooding in central Chile, disrupting production at several copper mines.
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