Letters from Chile: Visiting Dichato – the Town That Was

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a series. Read Part I here.

A former beautiful, bustling and touristy coastal town in Chile clings to an uncertain future after being engulfed by the 2010 tsunami.

A Dichato fishing boat scene, in waning evening light, exudes a serenity that
belies the realities of the almost complete destruction behind.
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh

Up to 90% of the buildings of Dichato were destroyed, creating a graveyard
of rubble, peppered with dilapidated buildings – many of which may soon end
up the same way.

Yesterday I visited the little coastal town of Dichato. A few months ago, such a trip might have included a bare-footed wade along the town’s tranquil beach, and, depending on the time of day, could have included a friendly wave or greater interaction with some of the smiling local fishermen bringing in their hauls. Afterwards I might have had a nice meal at one of the sun-drenched seaside restaurants or a coffee break in one of the town’s modest cafes, frequented by sea-loving tourists from near and far. It’s the kind of place many could envision themselves retiring in, or where you might establish a small business to accommodate a more leisurely lifestyle choice. Framed by green hills and groves, lined by a long sandy beach, and embraced by a beautiful natural cove that passively calms the restless South Pacific ocean, Dichato was, simply put, a very nice place to be.

Entire blocks were wiped out

Two months on and the cleanup seems barely started

But children find a way to play anywhere

The idyllic harbour’s natural calming effect on the sea is ironic, as two months ago these natural land formations worked instead to funnel and focus a quake-powered tsunami – creating a series of mammoth waves that engulfed the town of 3,000 people in a way that defies belief. Waves reached heights of 10 metres according to mainstream media reports, while some locals we spoke to pointed at salt water tree damage at heights that had to have been up to 14 metres. Either way, these are said to have been the highest surges and waves reported from the February 2010 Chile earthquake.

Waves washed right over these two story apartments.

The harbour’s shape intensified the tsunami and increased its destructiveness.

Compared to the physical destruction, loss of life was rather light. Locals here are experienced with earthquakes, and aware of the great waves that can follow. Indeed, municipal road signs – crudely portraying people fleeing with oversized waves behind – clearly mark tsunami danger zones and encourage retreat to higher ground. As a result, only about fifty people died in this particular town, and many of those were due to their returning too soon, believing the wave series had ended, or they were new residents from foreign countries who didn’t appreciate the wisdom in the calls to flee.

PRI Chile seeks to help

We came to Dichato because Grifen, Javiera and the others from Ecoescuela El Manzano (The Apple Tree Eco School) team wished to speak to the town’s mayor about ideas on sustainable building and community design. You’ll begin to understand their motivation behind this meeting when you see the pictures to follow.

A makeshift depot outside Chile’s second largest city, the heavily damaged
Concepción, loads prefabricated emergency housing onto trucks, ready to
erect into instant villages in destruction zones like Dichato nationwide.

The people of Dichato call this new tsunami refugee camp outside of town
‘the big neighbourhood’. This one camp will have 519 ‘homes’ in it, each
measuring 3×6 metres (18 square metres, or 193 square feet). The borders
of Dichato will host four or five more such camps,
albeit much smaller, before they’re done.

As much as we might wish we were, permaculturists are just plain not ready to roll out new sustainable communities of low-energy, earth-friendly, but low-cost eco-homes on the scale needed, and in the time frames needed, to address the immediate housing needs of survivors of such disasters. We have to be realistic here, as local mayors need to be in this respect. But, we can also recognise that our inability to fill the housing voids created by disasters such as this is largely because of a deficiency of common sense in our mainstream educational systems, a moderate supply of which could in turn bring a corresponding deluge of investment in appropriate preparedness via knowledgeable people throughout society. While we may not be geared up to take on the present challenge of housing thousands of people right now, we could be tomorrow if we are today showcasing the potential of appropriate housing to the right people and engendering their support and promotion of the same.

This is exactly what Grifen, Javiera and Co., with the backing of PRIs worldwide, are seeking to do.

Grifen and others talk to the mayor of Dichato

As it stands, the people moving from their temporary tents and hastily improvised shacks in other parts of the town (see pics at bottom) into one of these ‘beauties’ are being told that they should expect to put up with them for "no longer than one or two years". But, they have not been told what should happen after that…. In these tiny, uninsulated hutches, with winter arriving and a hot summer after that, one or two years will seem like an eternity – and yet, I think these dates are highly optimistic. Chile, like more and more countries today, is already dealing with acute energy problems. With an increasing likelihood that energy shortages and their associated economic woes will deepen global crises, I can easily predict these poor people remaining in these camps indefinitely – unless they can find a way to take control of their own futures.

There’s more to the article after the following short tour of ‘the big neighbourhood’:

The Chilean military coordinates the relief effort…

… and the resulting construction looks incredibly like an army compound.

Urban planning, army style. The emergency housing are all facing
the wrong way – away from the sun.

The new residents are moving in.

The 3×6 metre room – ready to move into.
[This and the next two photos are taken with an ultra wide angle lens,
so they look much bigger than they really are.]

They’ve brought their appliances, but we’re not sure when or if they’ll receive
power to run them. Water will be dispensed from centralised collection points,
delivered by truck to the new township.

I observed the buildings having many holes in the already thin cladding,
particularly where there were knots in the wood. These people
are in for a particularly unpleasant winter.

Someone scored the big chemical toilet contract….

The mother of this child described how after the tsunami many of her friends
returned to find at least something of their house and belongings left,
but she couldn’t find even a trace.

Families live roadside, awaiting their invitation into ‘the big neighbourhood’.

Demonstrating alternatives

It is politically correct for authorities to promise only a brief stay to new camp occupants, although unrealistic expectations and false hopes can entrench a feeling of waiting, and a feeling of dependency, in these makeshift communities. Such ingrained thought can ultimately lead to bitterness and unrest. Most of these people have little in the way of money – they cannot just buy their way into a better situation.

Even in these strait circumstances, however, there are ways the people can improve their lot, and right now. To showcase this, two weeks ago Grifen, Javiera and team ‘Expostsismo’ (a play on the words ‘Expo’, and post-earthquake – ‘postsismo’) ran a highly successful emergency housing exposition in the city of Yumbel, where they took one of these generic emergency houses, donated by the local municipality, and modified it in different ways over the course of a weekend. This demonstration was observed by hundreds of people and was so well received that it resulted in several other towns from different parts of Chile hearing about it, and requesting the same demonstration to be shown to their citizens and officials.

These invitations are not surprising as team Expostsismo – around forty volunteers in total – had wowed people with some simple but effective options. One was to turn the walls inside out, so the ‘pretty’ side was on the inside, and the ‘support beams’ (hard to call them support beams when they’re only 2×2"…) were on the outside, where they easily added some simple shelving before being filled with earthen mortar (straw, clay, a little sand and water) for significantly increased insulation. Other alternatives were to do the aforementioned, then separate the inner wall from the earth wall and utilise it as a ceiling panel, which can also be insulated above. (The generic emergency house has no ceiling panel and nothing but builder’s paper for insulation.) Other options shown were to re-shape one corner, utilising the material to construct a dry (composting) toilet. Officials and citizens were also taught about water harvesting potential, biological greywater cleaning systems, worm farms and their combined potential for both improved sanitation and rapid garden development.

Such simple techniques require almost nothing by way of investment – rather, it’s simply an educational process to show people healthier, low carbon alternatives that can improve their situation right now and which promise meaningful, skill-building activities that can help people to begin to take charge of their own lives and well-being.

The effect of the Expo was to inspire people with hope – they turned disaster into opportunity, hopelessness into enthusiasm. I wasn’t there, but from the volunteers I spoke to the spirit-lifting atmosphere emitted from observers was palpable.

Expo to run at Dichato

The mayor of Dichato would now like to see such an expo run in what’s left of his town. This has been roughly scheduled for May. The Expostsismo team have nothing less than a captive audience to showcase all kinds of permaculture goodness.

This is the kind of work permaculturists have a profound privelege to be involved in. The results can reach well beyond these disaster refugee camps, as such knowledge and the benefits thereof, once implemented, will ripple out to the wider community, and reach not only into subsequent disaster relief but into the very heart of mainstream thinking. This is particularly appropriate, even critical, as, in one way or another, increasing disaster frequency and intensity are likely expectations for all of us in the months and years ahead.

Continue on to read Part III: Who Gets the New House?

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Additional images to follow:

The lopsided sign hanging outside a damaged and barricaded shop reads:
"Let’s go Dichato – Let’s get up! It’s time community!"

Chilean flags wave over an impromptu shack village erected post-tsunami

Even the livestock are roughing it

This large fishing boat was washed a kilometre inland from the coast. It has
since been hoisted up onto supports to protect the hull.

Most of the industries, including fishing, have collapsed. But, people start
to build again, start to live again, and we try to provide them with skills and
knowledge to increase their resiliency and optimism.

Dichato has seen better days, but now it’s up to the people to rebuild,
cooperatively and with intelligence.