Chile says drought worsening, energy shortage critical

SANTIAGO, March 7 (Reuters) - Chile’s public works ministry said Friday that drought was intensifying, and that even if rainfall improves this year, the energy shortage could become more critical.

Chile’s major hydroelectric reservoir levels are far below their historic levels, and will need at least one year to rise to normal levels even if this year’s rainfall is normal, Deputy Secretary of Public Works Juan Saldivia told reporters.

“The drought is getting worse every day,” Saldivia said. “From the point of view of the country’s growth and greater water consumption, the drought is extraordinarily tough, it is the worse in the last 100 years.”

Last year, rainfall was scant due to the effects of the weather anomaly called La Nina, Spanish for “The Girl,” which prevents precipitation in Chile and causes torrential downpours in neighboring Bolivia.

According to meteorologists, La Nina will be at her strongest this month, but will then begin to recede.

“In July and August rainfall could increase, but the first half of the year will likely be dry,” Saldivia said. “Consequently, reservoir levels will not recover normal levels and that means (crop) irrigation in 2008-2009 will be difficult.”

The government has already invested some $90 million dollars in subsidies to help farmers feed livestock and dig deeper wells in response to the drought.

Lower hydroelectric reservoir levels in combination with cuts in supplies of natural gas from sole supplier Argentina caused electricity prices on the spot market to more than quadruple last year and have cramped the pace of Chile’s economic growth. (Reporting by Monica Vargas; Writing by Lisa Yulkowski; Editing by John Picinich)