Extreme drought in the Amazon could worsen even further in 2024

07 dezembro 2023

While the Brazilian government presents in Dubai results of policies that reduced deforestation in the biome, the local population feels the consequences of the climate crisis
By Solange Azevedo, from Manaus, Iranduba and Tefé (Amazonas), from WWF-Brasil
and Fábio de Castro, from São Paulo (SP)


While the world debates global warming and Lula's government tries to regain the role of environmental leadership at the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28 UNFCCC), taking place in Dubai, the population of the Amazon still experience the impacts of the extreme drought that hit the biome this year. The dry period, which normally finishes at the end of October, was so intense that the Brazilian Geological Survey only confirmed on November 24th the beginning of the flooding process in the basins of the Negro and Solimões rivers, in Manaus - two of the most important basins in the region. To make matters worse: scientists warn that the drought could be even more severe in 2024.

“El Niño will reach its maximum magnitude between December 2023 and February 2024. Therefore, with the delay in the start of the rains, the time to recharge the rivers until the next drought will be too short for them to fully recover, which could lead to an even more severe drought next year”, says Jochen Schöngart, researcher at the National Amazon Research Institute (Inpa). Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Ipam), made a similar analysis in an interview with the Brazilian press. According to her, water recharge in soils and rivers will not be complete and, as a consequence, the biome will not be able to reduce water stress.

The increasingly long dry season also fuels high temperatures, with peaks above 40°C for many days, and below-average rainfall, reinforces Ben Hur Marimon Jr., researcher at the State University of Mato Grosso. “As a result, the availability of water for plants becomes much lower and the forest begins to feel it. This water scarcity tends to lower the water table and the worst effects will possibly appear in the next dry season, in 2024”, he highlights.

The main reason for such an extreme and long-lasting drought is the combination of climate change - with the abnormal warming of the North Atlantic Ocean - and the occurrence of the El Niño phenomenon, characterised by the rise in temperature of the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, which is increasingly gaining strength. “These two factors, whose effects are exacerbated by deforestation and wildfires, contribute to increasing temperatures, prolonging the dry season, and inhibiting the formation of clouds and rain in different parts of the Amazon”, says Mariana Napolitano, Director of Strategy at WWF -Brazil.

“We need to put an end to this destruction. The Amazon forest provides essential environmental services for the country's development. The regularity of the rain cycle, on which our electrical system depends, the supply of cities and industries, and agriculture is just one of these services. The forest is also an essential carbon sink for tackling the climate crisis”, highlights Mariana. In other words: the negative impacts of the destruction of the biome are shared throughout Brazil and the world.

Poor situation on the surroundings of Solimões River

The first people to suffer from climate pressure, however, are those who live in the Amazon. “In my life, it was the worst drought I have ever seen. The fish have died and are beginning to be missing. The situation has become quite precarious,” said Ozinei da Silva Cordeiro, 37, during a visit by the WWF-Brazil team at the end of October. “We plant cassava and sell it in the city. But, at the moment, we have almost nothing and we don’t know if we will be able to deliver it, because the streams are dry.” Ozinei lives in the Nova Esperança village, in the Barreira da Missão Indigenous Land, in Tefé, in the state of Amazonas. The same municipality where the increase in water temperature caused the death of 155 river dolphins of the pink and tucuxi species since September 23rd.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), more than 900,000 small farmers like Ozinei live and work in the Brazilian Amazon. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone felt the impacts of the extreme drought, which were particularly serious for riverside populations, who were isolated, finding it difficult to obtain essential services such as water supply, food, health, and education.

The main rivers in the Amazon had an unprecedented reduction in levels. Solimões, for example, reached a historic low of 3.81 metres on October 17th in Manacapuru, in the Metropolitan Region of Manaus, according to measurements from the Brazilian Geological Service. Several points along the basin were transformed into a desert scene. And, despite the 22.3% drop in deforestation in the biome for the period from August 2022 to July 2023 compared to the previous 12 months, wildfires broke records in November, when the dry season should have already ended.

Even before reaching the peak, the population was already feeling the worsening of forest fires. “There were a lot of wildfires nearby. Everything that was a virgin forest caught fire. The air was bad because the smoke was coming straight here”, recalls Ozinei. “There were people who couldn’t breathe properly and they had to wear a mask and inhale. This year's fires were worse than those before. We've never seen anything like that."

Reports from residents from different parts of the Amazon indicate that subsistence plantations are being particularly affected, which is serious, as agriculture is the basis of the lifestyle of many communities in the region and the main activity of rural communities, responsible for a considerable part of the income. “The majority live off their products and some work at the school as teachers, security guards, and doing general services. We plant bananas, cassava trees, green scents, and lettuce to supplement our income and feed the children”, says Maria Vanusa Cândido de Barros, 39 years old, indigenous to the Kokama people and leader of the Borazinho community, also in the Tefé region.

“Because of the drought, we no longer have this income. We planted it, but couldn't water it. It became difficult to even get water to drink. We need to look for it in the city”, laments Maria Vanusa, who lives with her husband and four children. She remembers that the river retreated far from the village and it began to be necessary to walk long distances, under the scorching sun, and climb over a high, steep bank to bring water to the community.

With the drought, there was also an abrupt limitation in the flow of goods and freight rates rose. Fruits and vegetables, which previously came from across the river, began to arrive by truck or plane from other states, increasing costs. According to local newspapers, shipping costs jumped 200% in some cases on Amazon.

The reduction in river levels also hampered access to education in several locations. Pedagogue Elias Rosinaldo Gomes da Silva, 43 years old, indigenous to the Kambeba people who live in the Borazinho community, highlights that students usually go to school on foot or by canoe, but the route has become unfeasible. “A beach appeared. So, walking in the hot sun became very difficult for the students. We had to shut down the school,” he recalls. “We can’t handle the heat. Even under a tree or inside the house, we feel that shock, the warmth of the river. Next year will be even hotter.”

Hard times in the Rio Negro River region

Just like in Solimões, inhabitants of other river basins in the Amazon region also accumulated huge losses. One of the most dramatic experiences was around the Negro river, which fell to its lowest level since measurements began in Manaus, 121 years ago. It was October 26, 2023, when the ruler marked an impressive 12.70 metres deep. A historic drought.

On that day, the 52 vessels that docked at Davi's Harbour, the main public river terminal for passengers in the capital of Amazonas, were already inoperable. “The problems around here started long before that, in the middle of September'', recalls Cledison Lopes Brasil. “Our vessels, which carry up to 50 people and goods, stopped. We had to bring smaller boats because of the drought. It was only possible to get there by boats with a maximum of two people in some communities. And even so, sometimes we had to drag ourselves by.”

A member of a river transport cooperative that operates on the Tarumã-Açu, one of the tributaries of the Negro River, the boatman Brasil experiences both in his professional and personal life the impacts of the extreme drought that afflicts the Amazon. “I used to start working at 5:30 in the morning and finish around 6 pm. I used to go to seven communities, some that can only be accessed by boat, on a 40-minute journey. Now I spend most of my time standing still,” he says. “When the water level is normal, I can get to my house in 15 or 20 minutes. It ended up taking an hour by boat and another hour walking in the mud. It was very difficult for everyone.”

Experiences both in the surroundings of Negro and Solimões rivers confirm that the drought that has hit the Amazon is not only causing serious environmental damage, which puts the balance of the Amazon biome at serious risk, but there are also significant losses for the population and the local economy. In the state of Amazonas alone, more than 600,000 people were affected. The inn where Josilma Albuquerque de Souza works as a cook, for example, was empty during high season. Eight rooms that would accommodate up to 35 people in Iranduba, on the banks of the Negro river, were left empty because the water receded around 2 kilometres.

“With a low tide like the one that happened, there is no way for boats with tourists to get here”, highlights Josilma. “We live as God orders. I also had to stop the technical nursing course because I couldn't go to Manaus. My children’s school only operated online, but they missed several days of school because the internet failed.” One of the suspicions is that the solar energy panels where she lives and works, in the Santa Helena dos Ingleses community, have stopped producing electricity because of the clouds of smoke from the wildfires that have spread across the Amazon in recent months.

"I am 47 years old. I was born, raised and have always lived here. I've never seen a drought like this. And the tendency is to get worse”, highlights Nelson Brito de Mendonça, president of the community, one of 19 existing in the Negro River Sustainable Development Reserve. He, who was a logger for 20 years, argues that it is essential to promote socio-biodiversity chains in the biome in order to combat global warming: “Until the creation of the reserve, we had no other way to survive than cutting down trees. Not now. It is possible, for instance, to extract oils and seeds from the forest, açaí berries, and bacaba fruit, invest in community tourism, handicrafts or other activities that do not degrade the environment. These are things that no one was talking about before the reserve creation. But we really need technical support.”

Nelson recalls that, despite contributing to the conservation of the forest, the people of the Amazon are among those who first suffer the impacts of the climate crisis. “Here, where we used to go by boat, we have to go on foot. The school stopped because they ran out of lunch. The doctor didn't come anymore either because there was no way to get here. It became very difficult.” The only activity that was not paralysed in the community, he points out, was cassava cultivation. Even so, only for consumption by their own families because farmers have no way to sell their production.

“People say so much that Brazil is a reference in the environment, but a lot still needs to be done. There is no point in just talking, going to UN conferences, if nothing is done in practice”, highlights Nelson. “There has to be an effort from the federal, state and municipal governments with NGOs. Everyone has to work together to try to change this situation. It is necessary to give value and living conditions to the traditional populations of the Amazon, riverside and indigenous peoples because we are the ones who take care of the forest.”

What WWF-Brazil is doing

Concerning the death of river dolphins, WWF-Brazil has been acting in partnership with task forces led by the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute (IDSM) in Tefé and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in Coari, providing fuel, protective equipment Individual equipment, veterinary supplies and logistical support for the movement of volunteers. In addition to support in planning and mapping areas sensitive to animals, including climate models.

The organisation is also in contact with local partners and mobilised to support them in facing the humanitarian crisis caused by the drought in the Amazon region, as the consequences are especially dramatic for the most vulnerable populations, such as indigenous peoples, quilombolas, extractivists and riverside communities. Around 60 tons of food are being delivered to more than 3,900 families in communities impacted by shortages.

The distribution of food parcels has been concentrated in four points: Santarém, in Pará state, in partnership with the NGO Sapopema and the indigenous organisation Fepipa; in 10 municipalities where we operate together with the Alliance for Sustainable Development of Southern Amazonas and the APADRIT association; in the Piagaçu-Purus Sustainable Development Reserve, with the Department of the Environment of the state of Amazonas; and in Rondônia state, in partnership with the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defence Association and the Rubber Tappers Organisation.

We are also expanding donations of equipment to firefighting brigades, especially in settlements and riverside and indigenous communities, due to the intense wildfires that have occurred in the region. We have completed support for three brigades, two in the Tapajós river region and one in Amazonas river, and we expect to support another seven by March.
In addition to serious environmental damage, drought also brings significant losses to the population and the local economy
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
The impacts are particularly serious for riverside populations, who have become isolated and find it difficult to obtain essential services
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
“In my life, it was the worst drought I have ever seen. The fish have died and are beginning to be missing. The situation has become quite precarious”, said Ozinei da Silva Cordeiro, resident of TI Barreira da Missão, in Tefé
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
In Tefé, the increase in water temperature has caused the death of 155 pink and tucuxi dolphins since September 23
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
"Because of the drought, we no longer had this income. We planted, but were unable to water. It was difficult to even get water to drink", laments Maria Vanusa Cândido de Barros, indigenous of the Kokama people and leader of the Borazinho community
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
The main reason for such an extreme and long-lasting drought is the combination of climate change
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
Pedagogue Elias Rosinaldo Gomes da Silva, an indigenous member of the Kambeba people who lives in the Borazinho community, highlights that students usually go to school on foot or by canoe, but the route has become unviable
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
One of the most dramatic experiences was around the Rio Negro, which fell to its lowest level since measurements began in Manaus 121 years ago
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
"People say so much that Brazil is a reference in the environment, but a lot still needs to be done. There’s no point in just talking, going to UN conferences, if nothing is done in practice”, highlights Nelson Brito de Mendonça, president of the Santa Helena dos Ingleses community, in Rio Negro
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
In the Santa Helena dos Ingleses community, the inn where Josilma Albuquerque de Souza works as a cook was empty during the high season
© Jacqueline Lisboa / WWF-Brasil
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