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  HOME | Latin America (Click here for more)

Drought Wreaking Havoc on South American River System

BUENOS AIRES/ASUNCION/SAO PAULO – Southeastern South America’s Parana River is suffering from a historic drought that is observable at its source in Brazil, along its passage through Paraguay and particularly in Argentina, where low water levels are preventing canals from serving as fire buffers and allowing wetlands on its parched banks to be devoured by flames.

Scant rainfall along each of the courses of Latin America’s second-longest river are resulting in increasingly low water volumes, while the weather forecast indicates there will be little change in precipitation levels over the next few months.

Experts say the drought appears to be structural as opposed to cyclical.

“We’ve been experiencing a drought for 18 months, and that’s caused a drop in the volume of the tributaries that feed the Parana River,” Carlos Hugo Rocha, an agricultural engineer and professor at the State University of Ponta Grossa, located in the southern Brazilian state of Parana, told EFE.

Climate change is triggering longer droughts and shorter and more intense periods of rainfall. This prevents water from penetrating the soil and feeding the springs and streams that merge into rivers.

Increasingly intensive land use due to the expansion of cities and agricultural areas, meanwhile, has reduced the soil’s water filtration capacity.

As it flows downstream, the Parana powers two hydroelectric dams: Itaipu, which is operated by Paraguay and Brazil; and Yacyreta, jointly run by Paraguay and Argentina.

Water levels at both of those power stations are significantly lower than usual, although both plants say electricity supplies will not be affected in the coming months.

The Itaipu operations superintendent on the Paraguayan side, Hugo Zarate, said the power station can draw from other reservoirs located upstream on the Parana.

“Through year’s end, production is expected to be less than other years, but it’s assured,” the engineer said.

Navigability on the Parana also is a cause for concern because of the low water volumes, especially considering that due to the pandemic-triggered border closures that river is the only route for Paraguayan soybean exports.

Small fishermen also are suffering the impact of the drought.

“The situation for the fishing sector is very critical. Almost 70 percent of the Ayolas district (in southernmost Paraguay) lives from fishing. There’s little fish, little tourism. It’s all paralyzed,” the spokesman for the Confederation of Fishermen of Ayolas, Angel Cano, told EFE in a phone interview.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, an international non-governmental organization, meanwhile, has raised alarm over the risk of intentional fires.

Farmers and ranchers of the Parana River delta have traditionally set fires to promote the growth of tender and more palatable grasses, although canals separating those wetlands typically served as a natural buffer.

But with the severe drought having triggered the Parana’s lowest water levels in 60 years, those canals have disappeared, Greenpeace Argentina’s campaign coordinator, Leonel Mingo, told EFE.

What once was water – and a natural buffer – is now solid earth, he said, adding that the fires have spread so much that “there’s not much left to burn.”

For his part, Pablo Javkin, the mayor of Rosario, a city on the west bank of the Parana that is the largest urban area in the northern Argentine province of Santa Fe and the one most affected by the fires, told EFE that arsonists may be setting some of the blazes with the mere intent of “doing harm.”

Around 70,000 hectares (270 square miles) have been burned and a total of 11,800 fires have been detected since January in the provinces of Entre Rios, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires. A total of 6,741 blazes were detected in July alone, while around 3,610 were reported just in the last week.

“The wetlands have been threatened and destroyed for decades in Argentina,” Mingo said, stressing the importance of protecting that ecosystem through the passage of a bill that has the backing of the Argentine government’s Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry and is now before Congress.

The Greenpeace coordinator said the Parana Delta is home to 700 plant species and 543 vertebrate species – mainly birds but also foxes, capybaras, wildcats and fish – and lamented that those animals “are being burned alive.”

Javkin said that if protection for wetlands is not enshrined into law the situation will become “very difficult” in the coming months.

One large area of wetlands affected by the fires is located across the river from Rosario in the neighboring province of Entre Rios.

The situation is leading to political tensions, with Rosario’s mayor calling on Entre Rios’ authorities to “work harder to control and prevent the blazes,” which are not directly affecting any cities in that neighboring province.

Meanwhile, smoke drifts over Rosario every time an easterly wind blows and makes it harder for local residents to breathe even as they – like the rest of the planet – strive to protect themselves from the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

This week, the fires have raged so violently that the smoke traveled as far as Buenos Aires.


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