A major drought in the central Brasil is causing a socio-economic crisis

Pair of images acquired by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on 6 July 2019 (left panel) and 10 July 2021 (right panel). The images provide clear evidence of the drought affecting the Paraná River in Argentina, near the port of Rosario. Exposed sandbars and dried wetlands are apparent in the left image. Credit: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery.

In a report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, scientists analyzed a prolonged drought in one of the largest South American basins, the La Plata Basin, and their findings reveal large scale effects that have triggered a crisis throughout the region. The drought started in 2019 and continues affecting the region as one of the driest events on the continent since the 1950s.

The La Plata Basin is located in Bolivia, Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay, and north-eastern Argentina. The basin has 3.1 million square kilometers, making it the second-largest basin in the world, after the Amazon Basin, also in South America. Nearly 100 million people live in the area and rely on water supply, navigation, and energy consumption. 

Several previous analyses made by the World Meteorological Organization(WMO) and local hydrological and meteorological agencies monitored the conditions in the region throughout the years, with the data showing that the monthly total precipitation between 2016 and 2021 is twice lower than what was expected in the basin.

A combination of satellite and on-site data shows the clear increasing severity of the drought. From March 2019 to September 2021, there has been an increase in the area with exceptional drought in southern central Brazil, Paraguay, most of Uruguay, and northern and central Argentina.

Dreadful in a number of ways

South America and the domains of the La Plata Basin (bold black contour) and southeastern South America (blue polygon). Image credits: Lovino et al, 2018.

One of the reasons to make the region drier is the La Niña event — La Niña being the oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon that is the colder counterpart of El Niño.

When the waters in the Pacific are colder, the basin experiences droughts due to shifting rain patterns. There was a moderate La Niña at end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, this explains the low precipitation last year. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), weak La Niña conditions emerged last month and will continue until February 2022.

Land usage also plays a role in the drought. Deforestation is running rampant in Brazil, where only left 5% of the original forest is still in place, mostly to make way for agriculture. At the same time, drought is having a devastating impact on local agriculture, reducing soybean yields.

The consequences of the drought are far-reaching. Argentinian, Brazilian, and Paraguayan governments have declared drought emergency this year. Fires broke out in the Paraná Wetlands, especially in the Pantanal region. In 2020, Brazil’s Space Research Centre (INPE) reported a 233% fire increase in the area — fires that are amplified by the drought.

The fires also had a devastating effect on the Pantanal fauna, which includes 463 bird species, 269 fish species, more than 236 mammalian species, and 141 reptile and amphibian species. Nearly a quarter of the wetland in Pantanal was destroyed by an unprecedented fire that is thought to have occurred due to climate change

Cascading effects

Drought categories in the La Plata Basin. Credits: EC-JRC, CEMADEN, SISSA, and WMO.

Since hydropower is one of the main renewable energy sources in South America, it is also a cause of concern during droughts. Both Argentinian and Brazilian energy institutes declared that their reservoirs are at critical levels. This forced generators to delay maintenance activity to keep the dams working as long as possible with the available water. As a result, the population will face a summer with more expensive electric bills.

Unsurprisingly, pseudoscience has also stepped up with one group proposing to magically ‘solve’ the problem. In an official meeting between members of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Brazil and a group that claims to be able to mystically predict and control the rain, the group (called Fundação Cacique Cobra Coral) claimed be able to predict the weather. According to them, the Cacique (the entity that helps predict things) is the same ‘soul’ who was once Galileu Galilei and then Abraham Lincoln. It is unclear why the esoteric foundation, whose members used to include Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, was considered by high-ranking officials.

South America will face more social-economic impacts for the LPB with the current La Niña event. However, it will only be possible to account for full damage of the drought once it is over. Until there, research local and international research centres will continue monitoring the area, with scientific predictions which help governments start mitigation strategies during this crisis. In the meantime, people in the region will continue to suffer the effects.

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