Water Shortages in the Amazon Region

Rivers that cut through the Amazon rainforest are falling to their lowest levels on record

The Amazon Basin lacks what it usually has in abundance: water. The world’s most water-rich region is currently experiencing the worst drought since records began over 120 years ago. The implications for the people, regional economy, and flora and fauna in South America are severe. Experts are alarmed, and there is no sign of relief.

The water levels of some of the major rivers have recently decreased to unprecedented levels. The consequences include supply difficulties and the death of animals. “The extreme drought in the North of Brazil is a humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of people,” says Rômulo Batista of the environmental organization Greenpeace.

The Brazilian Amazon region spans nine states and is equivalent in size to Western Europe. It is home to a stunning variety of plants and animals. An estimated fifth of the Earth’s freshwater flows through the world’s largest and most complex network of river channels.

Ivalmir Silva searches for water on Puraquequara Lake, which has been affected by drought, in Manaus, Brazil, on Oct. 6.
Ivalmir Silva searches for water on Puraquequara Lake, which has been affected by drought, in Manaus, Brazil, on Oct. 6. Image: NBC News.

The current drought has a particularly negative impact on the condition of the Amazon. The Rio Negro, the second-largest tributary of the Amazon, reached its lowest level since official measurements began near the provincial capital Manaus at the end of October.

According to the Geological Service of Brazil (SGB), the river’s water level recently reached a record low of 12.70 meters. According to geoscientist André Luis Martinelli Real dos Santos from the SGB, the average minimum level in Manaus for this month is 18 meters.

The riverbank communities, primarily reliant on boat transportation, are facing hardships. Due to the low water level, numerous boats have run aground, making the supply of water, food, and medication to these communities increasingly challenging. The state government of Amazonas has declared a state of emergency for all 62 districts, affecting nearly 600,000 people. “My husband went fishing and came back without anything because there were no fish,” recounts farmer Ana Carla Pereira in a Greenpeace report.

In the past few days, approximately 70 dead freshwater dolphins were found in the municipality of Coari, located about 360 kilometers from Manaus, according to the news portal G1. Towards the end of September, the same region in Lake Tefé discovered over 100 dead freshwater dolphins. Although the exact cause of death is still under investigation, it is presumed to be related to the current heat and drought in the region, according to the Mamirauá Research Institute.

Even though droughts are a common occurrence, dos Santos points out that this one stands out because of how quickly the rivers are currently drying up, as Greenpeace expert Rômulo Batista has noted. “Many places have not had time to prepare.”

El Niño makes the current situation worse. This recurring weather phenomenon, occurring every few years, is causing increased dryness and heat in northern Brazil and is expected to persist until at least April of next year, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas emphasizes that “extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, forest fires, heavy rainfall, floods and high water will intensify in some regions and have a significant impact.”

The city of Manaus, with its millions of inhabitants, was shrouded in dense smoke in October, a consequence of illegal slash-and-burn practices and dry conditions. “In the Amazon region, fires are typically associated with deforestation. Moist, well-preserved forests do not ignite spontaneously,” explains Mariana Napolitano of the environmental organization WWF. In October alone, according to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), there were more than 22,000 fires—the highest recorded for this month in the past 15 years.

According to Edegar de Oliveira from the WWF, the interaction of climate change, El Nio, and increasing deforestation results in a negative spiral of increasingly severe droughts and fires. Batista, an expert from Greenpeace, adds, “We know that those who are suffering the most from the climate crisis are precisely those who have caused the least global warming.

Featured Image: Rivers that cut through the Amazon rainforest are falling to their lowest levels on record. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Reuters