Months after floods, Brazilian Amazon faces severe drought

TEFE – Just months after enduring floods that destroyed crops and submerged entire communities, thousands of families in the Brazilian Amazon are now facing a severe drought that, in some areas at least, is the worst in decades. The low level of the Amazon River, at the center of the world’s largest drainage system, has put dozens of municipalities on high alert.

The rapid drop in the river’s water level is due to lower-than-expected rainfall in August and September, according to Luna Gripp, a geoscience researcher who monitors levels in the Western Amazon River for the Brazilian Geological Service.

As most of the state of Amazonas is not connected by roads, the main concern is the shortage of food, fuel and other goods normally transported by waterway. In Tefe, a town of 60,000 people on the banks of the Amazon River, large ships were unable to arrive at the downtown port.

The situation is even more critical in the dozens of communities scattered across the region surrounding Tefe, affecting around 3,500 families. Many waterways, such as lakes and streams, have dried up, eliminating access to the Amazon River and therefore to nearby towns, which function as trading centers.

In the community of Sao Estevao, fishermen have postponed fishing for pirarucu, the largest fish in the Amazon, because the boat carrying their catch to town cannot dock. The legal fishing season runs until the end of November. If the water level doesn’t rise soon, the community of seven families will lose an important source of income, fisherman Pedro Canizio da Silva told The Associated Press in an audio message.

About six months ago, the community suffered losses due to a bigger than expected flood season.

“I lost my banana and yuca crops. Also the caimans and anacondas came close to us due to the flooding and ate some of my ducks and chickens. The water under my stilt house almost reached the ground,” Canizio recalls.

In the indigenous community of Porto Praia, the nearby branch of the Amazon River has become a wide strip of sand that during the day becomes too hot to cross on foot. A motorboat trip to Tefe, which normally takes 90 minutes, now takes four hours, Anilton Braz, the local chief, told the AP, because the water is so shallow in some stretches that it is necessary to paddle instead of using the motor.

The local water source has become muddy and no alternative exists, Braz said. “We fear that our children will fall ill with diarrhea and other illnesses.”

The situation has led the town hall of Tefe to declare a state of emergency to speed up the provision of aid to families, but so far aid has been limited. “The mayor sent some food,” Braz said.

The local civil defense authority said 53 of 62 municipalities have been affected by floods and drought in Amazonas state this year alone. The driest season, locally referred to as the “Amazon summer”, generally lasts from June to December in this part of the rainforest.

In a region as vast as the Amazon, the severity of drought varies.

In Porto Velho, the state capital of Rondonia, the mighty Madeira River recorded its lowest level since official records began in 1998. And in the state capital of Acre, Rio Branco, the river Acre, which runs through the city, has reached its lowest level since measurements began in 1967, according to the Brazilian Geological Service.

The drought in the Amazon River is not as extreme so far, although Coari, a town near Tefe, is experiencing its sixth worst drought since records began in 1975.

“As climate change causes extreme weather events, significant droughts in the Amazon are likely a sign of such changes,” Alejandro Duarte, a climate researcher at the Federal University of Acre, told AP. “This could be an irreversible trend in the years to come.”

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