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The Parana River at its lowest level for 70 years

A river that looks like a desert… the Parana, the second largest river in South America after the Amazon, is suffering from severe low flow conditions and its secondary tributaries have either dwindled or else dried completely in Brazil and Argentina. At the end of July, the Argentine government declared a state of hydric emergency for 180 days while an energy crisis struck in Brazil.


Recurrent droughts


2019 – © NASA Earth Observatory
2020 – © NASA Earth Observatory

The dry season ended in South America last October, with a devastating toll on the environment, scarred by fires in Brazil and a historic fall in the levels of the rivers Parana and Paraguay (read our article published on 27/11/2020). This state of drought seems to have become persistent and 2021 saw further deterioration in the condition of aquatic habitats. The river Parana, whose source lies in Brazil and flows for 4,800 km, reached its lowest level since 1944.


Low flows are evidently naturally variable in this region but the lack of rainfall observed over several weeks was certainly aggravated by human activities, including deforestation, land-use transformation for intensive livestock breeding, and the urbanisation and disappearance of wetlands, in addition to global warming. In 2020, one of the world’s largest wetland regions, in Brazil, was devastated by wildfires.

Dams dried up


The result of this low rainfall: the average discharge of the Parana of 17,000 m3/s fell to 6,200 m3/s, just above the historic minimum (5,800 m3/s) recorded in 1944. The hydropower plant of Itaipu, the world’s most productive, operated at only 50% of its capacity. At the Yacyreta dam, between Argentina and Paraguay, the discharge recorded in June was the lowest since May 1914 and production was cut by half. The volume of the Iguaçu falls, a major tourist attraction and a spot rich in biodiversity, fell by 80%.

Throughout the basin of the Parana and its tributaries, harnessed by 130 dams, rainfall has been almost systematically below the monthly average since October 2019. Heavily dependent on hydroelectricity, the countries crossed by the Rio Parana have to find emergency solutions. In Brazil, at the beginning of September President Jair Bolsonaro called the population to “switch off their lights” to save electricity, while encouraging production from other energy sources (biomass and coal-fired plants) and even importing electricity. Prices rocketed and the household electricity bill has risen by 13% since the beginning of the year.


A major economic impact


© AFP – Marcelo Manera

The impacts on navigation are obviously catastrophic; 80% of Argentina’s agricultural production transits via the river towards the Atlantic. According to the information sent to us by Alfredo Sese[1], the Rosario Board of Trade announced a worrying figure: since the beginning of the year the agro-industrial sector had lost US $315 million due to slowdowns in cereal exports (the operators were obliged to reduce the loads carried by barges to prevent them from running aground, or else partially resort to land transport, which drove up costs by more than 20%).

In Brazil, forecasts predict a 25% reduction in coffee production. The volumes of other important crops for feeding the local population, such as corn and sugar cane, will also be lower.

Water cuts are increasing in cities. In Brazil, certain medium-sized cities like Itu, in the State of Sao Paulo, have already begun rationing one out of two days in certain districts. The ecological impact is equally severe, fishes see their habitats shrink or vanish. The lagoons and branches of rivers, where fishes spawn, become disconnected from the main branch by huge sandbanks while the salt content of the water increases. Fishing, a source of subsistence and income for thousands of people, has become more difficult and even prohibited.

This crisis is occurring in an economic context already weakened in South America by the Covid-19 pandemic and rising inflation.

[1] Alfredo Sese is a IFGR resource expert member. He is currently Technical Secretary of Transport and Infrastructure at the Rosario Board of Trade.

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