Brazil’s Fierce Drought
by Robert Hunziker
[This article was first published in CounterPunch on September 3, 2021.]
The Amazon rainforest is arguably the world’s premier asset. Indeed, it’s the world’s most crucial asset in a myriad of ways, nothing on Earth compares. Yet, it is infernally stressed because of inordinate drought. The bulk of the Amazon rainforest is located in Brazil, where, according to the title of an article in NASA, Earth Observatory, the country headline says it all: “Brazil Battered by Drought.”
Moreover, the planet is becoming a drought-besieged planet (see- Drought Clobbers the World, August 27, 2021). As for the Amazon, according to NASA, it has been battered by serious bouts of drought every 5 years 1998, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020-21. As such, the normally resilient forest does not have a chance to catch breath and repair damage.
Sassan Saatchi, NASA JPL claims; “The old paradigm was that whatever carbon dioxide we put up in (human-caused) emissions, the Amazon would help absorb a major part of it… The ecosystem has become so vulnerable to these warming and episodic drought events that it can switch from sink to source depending on the severity and the extent. This is our new paradigm.” (Source: NASA Finds Amazon Drought Leaves Long Legacy of Damage, Capitals Coalition)
The Amazon rainforest is 60% of the world’s rainforests; the rainfall and rivers cover 70% of South America’s GDP; its skyborne river of moisture sends rainfall to the Western US and as far as Iowa cornfields and Central America; its trees store 86B tons of carbon; 30% of world species, medical discoveries galore, and automatically one of the biggest consumers of the industrial world’s CO2. Its health is crucial to the functionality of the entire planet. As it goes, so goes the world.
All of its great attributes, and yet, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil last week said the country’s hydroelectric dam reservoirs are: “At the limit of the limit.” (Source: Diane Jeantet, Associated Press, Brazil Water survey Heightens Alarm Over Extreme Drought, Midland Daily News, Aug. 27, 2021)
Reservoirs in the Paraná River, which provide power for Sao Paulo and several states in Brazil “have never before been so depleted, the grid operator said this month,” Ibid.
The Paraná River basin is home to several hydroelectric dams and reservoirs. Water levels on the river are more than 30 feet below average at the Brazil – Paraguay border. This threatens to disrupt cargo ship traffic. Brazil’s National Weather and Basic Sanitation Agency has declared a “critical situation” for the river basin.
For the first time in 100 years, because of the long drought, the National Meteorological System (Inmet) issued an emergency alert for Brazil at the end of May 2021.
The Paraná River runs from Brazil to Argentina. It is the second-longest, 4,800 km or approx. 3,000 miles, river in Brazil, just behind the Amazon. It supplies electricity and water to 40 million people. At the current hydro flow rate, blackouts are likely this year, especially during peak hours.
Additionally, Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands, not only suffers from global warming’s knack for spiking severe drought, additionally, more than 25% of Brazil’s Pantanal forest went up in flames last year in the worst annual fire devastation since records started. As it happens, developers set fires to clear land to grow crops, raise cattle and mine. People are responsible for 95% of the fires. It’s important to emphasize that fires in rainforests are not a regular part of the natural environment.
As it happens, Brazil is not alone as hemispheric drought is now occurring in parallel, north, and south.
Both northern and southern hemispheric droughts are running in parallel, sending a strong message that something’s horribly wrong. It should not be this pervasive. Brazil’s depleting reservoirs provide electricity and water to 40 million people. In tandem, the depleting Colorado River provides electricity and water to 40 million people. Both systems, at the same time, will likely be subject to water rationing within months, not years, which is currently under consideration by authorities in both hemispheres.
The worldwide drought is universally connected and thus compounded, maybe feeding on its own energy, enhanced by massive human-generated emissions of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane) blanketing the atmosphere.
Additionally, in Brazil and only recently, scientists have discovered a very disturbing consequence of drought: Brazil’s share of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, has seen its water-cover area drop to one-quarter (25%) of its area of only 30 years ago. However, that analysis does not include 2021, which is shaping up as Brazil’s worst drought in over 90 years.
Pantanal wetlands are enormous, sprawling across three countries. The loss of so much water cover is a real shocker to the scientists that conducted the study. According to Mažeika Patricio Sulliván, an ecology professor at Ohio State University, the human footprint of deforestation, fires, and plowing under wetlands is, in part, to blame as well as greenhouse gas emissions, prompting global warming: “We’re altering the magnitude of those natural processes… This is not just happening in Brazil. It’s happening all over the world,” Ibid.
Increasingly, scientists send the same message… “It’s happening all over the world.”
Nearly 90% of South America’s wetlands have vanished since 1900. Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet, essential for wildlife and retaining water to be released into rivers and aquifers all of which also serve to prevent destructive flash floods, think Germany’s and China’s loss of wetland regions, thereafter submerged in flash floods.
According to Cassio Bernardino, a project manager for WWF-Brazil: “The prospects are not good; we’re losing natural capital, we’re losing water that feeds industries, energy generation and agribusiness… society as a whole is losing this very precious resource, and losing it at a frighteningly fast rate,” Ibid.
By now, with a Brazilian quasi-dystopian experience front and center for all of the world to see, plus the affront by society’s lack of concern for life-sourcing ecosystems, a provocative question arises: Where is all of this headed?
The current trajectory looks dark and bleak.
What can be done?
A good starting point would be for the world’s leaders to agree to tackle the source of the problem, fossil fuels, by first admitting there is a problem, which is the problem. They really have not admitted it forcibly enough to make a big enough difference. Will they?
And, so it stands.
Based in Los Angeles, Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and published in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.