The most severe drought on record in the Brazilian Amazon is disrupting boat transportation, isolating communities and killing fish and riverine creatures.
The Brazilian government attributes the drought to climate change and the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has caused the volume of rainfall in the northern Amazon to fall below the historical average and river levels to drop to near record levels.
The low water levels pose a threat to the estimated 30 million people that call the Amazon basin home.
The cause of the drought is the weather pattern called El Nino, which has caused greatly reduced rainfall in the Andes, whose numerous rivers all flow down to the Amazon, and eventually out into the Atlantic ocean.
Droughts have become more frequent in the Amazon’s Madeira River, whose basin extends some 2,000 miles from Bolivia to Brazil, with four of the five lowest river levels recorded in the past four years, said Marcus Suassuna Santos, a researcher with the Geological Survey of Brazil.
The Madeira’s level at Porto Velho is the lowest since measurements began in 1967. Nearby, Brazil’s fourth-largest hydroelectric dam, Santo Antonio plant, halted operations this week due to the lack of water. It’s the first time that happened since it opened in 2012.
Further north, in the Negro River basin, a different pattern has emerged. The Amazon’s main tributary has had seven of its largest floods in the past 11 years, with the worst in 2021. But the Negro River, too, is headed toward its lowest-ever water levels this year.
“We are already living a scenario of an altered climate that oscillates between extreme events, either of drought or heavy rains. This has very serious consequences not only for the environment, but also for people and the economy,” said Ane Alencar, science director for the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, or IPAM, a nonprofit.
“I think there is a very high chance that what we are living now, the oscillation, is the new normal,” Alencar added.
A state of emergency has been declared in Manaus and more than 20 other cities.
Many rivers have dried up, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded in remote jungle villages.
Entire villages that depend on the rivers for a sustainable livelihood and transportation are now struggling to go about daily life and have to receive food, medicine and water by air.
Some floating villages comprised of houseboats are now stranded in the mud.
Eight Brazilian states recorded the lowest rainfall in the period from July to September in over 40 years, according to CEMADEN, Brazil’s disaster warning center. The drought has affected most of the main rivers in the Amazon, the world’s largest basin, which accounts for 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water.
Sources: BBC, NPR, news agencies.