Argentina struggles with the drought (nd current)

Stranded boats in the paraná river near the town of San Lorenzo

Foto: Reuters/August Marcarian

While heavy rain causes flooding in many places in Europe, the picture is different in South America: the Río Paraná has sunk to its lowest level in half a century. A lack of precipitation in the Brazilian headwaters of the river is cited as the cause. In May, the Brazilian weather service reported the lowest rainfall in over 90 years for the southern states of Minas Gerais, Goiás, Mato Grosso do Sul, São Paulo and Paraná. Many experts wonder how the phenomenon is related to climate change, which, on the other hand, has long been causing heavy rains in South America.

The dry weather is not solely responsible for the low water of the Paraná, which flows from Brazil via Paraguay and Argentina 4880 kilometers south to its confluence with the Río de la Plata. For years, the forest areas in the Amazon and the Pantanal in the south of Brazil have been cleared and converted into usable areas for the cultivation of agricultural products and for livestock. In Paraguay and Argentina, the limit of use for agriculture is being pushed further and further north.

In Paraguay, six million hectares of forest have been cleared over the past 20 years. In almost the same period of time, the bulldozers in Argentina flattened around 14 million hectares of forest. As in Brazil, the deforested area is mainly used for livestock and soybean cultivation in both countries. Although the water consumption from the river is increasing, the loss of the water-storing forest areas, which has always been able to mitigate the extreme effects of heavy or light rainfall, is far more serious. The disappearance of the forests is changing the microclimate. Humid air masses are attracted weaker and weaker.

The river’s average water level has been falling since mid-2019. This was already noticeable last year in the large wetlands along the last 300 kilometers of the river in Argentina. In the Paranás delta, 80 percent of the area is in the water at normal water levels. Only 20 percent is solid ground. Now the relationship has been reversed. In the past year, countless fires destroyed over 500 square kilometers of marshland. An environmental disaster that threatens to repeat itself by the end of July at the latest, when farmers traditionally burn their fields, although this has long been banned.

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Freight shipping on the Paraná to and from the Atlantic, via which Argentina transports 80 percent of its agricultural export products such as soy, wheat, corn or oils, as well as biodiesel and ethanol, is also impaired. The loading ports are close together on the riverside along the metropolis of Rosario. Up to this point, the Paraná is navigable for ships with a loading capacity of up to 48 thousand tons. At the moment, however, the ships can only cast off with 20 percent less cargo. Grain and oilseeds are therefore transported by truck to the Atlantic port in Bahia Blanca, 1000 kilometers away.

The plans for dredging the fairway, in which ships with a loading capacity of up to 70,000 tons are to travel, have long been underway. With each deepening of the river, however, the flow speed increases, so less and less water flows off faster and faster on the Río Paraná.

The Yacyretá hydropower plant is also affected by the water shortage. In normal operation, the power plant, which Argentina and Paraguay operate jointly, generates 3200 megawatts of electricity. However, only twelve of the 20 turbines are currently in use on the dam. They generate just under a third of the potential output. Argentina now wants to cover its needs by starting up gas-fired power plants. The losses caused by climate change in the more climate-friendly generation of electricity through hydropower are offset with climate-damaging CO2 emissions.

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The government in Buenos Aires has now imposed a water emergency on the seven provinces that the Paraná in Argentina flows through on its way to the Río de la Plata. The situation with regard to the local drinking water supply is becoming more and more critical. In the numerous water treatment plants along the river, the pumps are already sucking in more sludge than water. In many places the population is called upon to use water responsibly and sparingly. The all-clear is not in sight. According to Argentina’s water authority, the water level could hover around the current low level until the end of the year. Even if it rains heavily again in the Brazilian Pantanal, it will take several months before this can be felt in the course of the Argentine river.

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