This Friday, a new government will take power in Chile, following the election victory of a 36-year-old progressive, Gabriel Boric, who will step into the role of president after running on a feminist and green agenda. Boric will also preside as the nation writes a new constitution, which may present unique opportunities to tackle pressing issues like water rights and the climate crisis.
This massive political shift has formed the backdrop for the announcement of the world’s fourth Chief Heat Officer (CHO) for Chile’s capital, Santiago, a role dedicated to fighting extreme urban heat in the city and in South America generally. The new CHO, Cristina Huidobro, will collaborate with her counterparts in Miami, Athens, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, to usher in a range of evidence-based heat interventions for Santiago, as well as some that will address the city’s disastrous water shortage.
“I think it’s a very exciting moment to address these types of issues in Chile,” says Huidobro, who was appointed to the position March 3 by Claudio Orrego, governor of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago. Huidobro, an architect and urban planner, has spent six years in Santiago’s regional government, where she currently serves as Chief of Urban Resilience, overseeing the implementation of Santiago’s climate resilience strategy. As CHO, she’ll continue her resilience work but pivot heavily to heat mitigation.
The CHO title is important to spreading awareness of the urgency of addressing extreme heat, which is estimated to have killed 356,000 people worldwide in 2019; globally, heat deaths rose by approximately 74% between 1980 and 2016. It’s a “silent killer,” says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council, which is collaborating with each CHO. “[Extreme heat] doesn’t have a season, and a name, and an agency over it, and insurance policies that go with it, and it doesn’t trigger natural disaster in the emergency response agencies,” she says. Huidobro agrees: “You need to start naming the problem.”
That’s why Miami, Athens, and Freetown appointed CHOs in their cities last year, who are tasked with raising awareness as well as strategizing interventions and long-term policies to reduce heat deaths. Like many cities, Santiago has been particularly affected by heatwaves the past few summers. About 37% of Chile’s population, roughly 7 million, lives in the capital’s metropolitan region. “So, if you make policy here, you can impact many, many, many people,” Huidobro says.
Critically, Santiago also has a water shortage. For a decade, Chile has suffered from a “megadrought” thought to be caused by a warm ocean “blob” spurred by climate change, which is driving warm currents across the country. At the same time, the mighty glaciers in the Andes are shrinking by three feet a year. “Those are our water reserves, and they are melting down,” Huidobro says. There’s been new legislation to protect some of them, but not all.
What’s more, Chile is the only country in the world with a private water system, which dates to the days of dictator rule under General Pinochet. So, “priority one,” says Baughman McLeod, will be identifying interventions that reduce water stress on residents. Huidobro has experience in that area: She was instrumental in pushing for Chile’s first water fund, which protects the Maipo drainage basin that provides water for Santiaguinos.
Huidobro will be assessing a variety of interventions to mitigate heat. One popular concept is increasing tree canopies, which provide shade as well as mental health benefits, an idea that’s taken off in the other CHO cities—Freetown is planting one million trees by the end of 2022. Cool pavements is another. An early assessment has shown that the difference in ground temperature between a shaded grass surface, and an unshaded asphalt surface can be up to 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit). The city will also be piloting green roofs, starting with 1,000 square meters of green roof on top of the Hospital de Maipú. Green roofs can reduce heat islands by 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and this iteration is also estimated to capture three tons of CO2 annually.
At the center of designing solutions to rising temperatures will be a quest to trim inequities; poorer populations are often the ones who suffer most from extreme heat. In Santiago, that means informal workers who sell goods outdoors, people living in slums, and those experiencing homelessness. Also on Huidobro’s agenda will be to identify sources of investment for chosen initiatives, whether private, public, or nonprofit, and to share learnings with cities all over South America, a continent where the average temperature could increase by over 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.
Huidobro hopes to work closely with the incoming national government, to codify long-term policies into law, and to influence the new constitution. “One thing that we already know is,” she says with promise, “it’s going to be a green constitution.”