The worst drought in more than 40 years is damaging the world’s biggest rainforest, plaguing the Amazon basin with wildfires, sickening river dwellers with tainted drinking water, and killing fish by the millions as streams dry up.
“What’s awful for us is that all these fish have died and when the water returns there will be barely any more,” said Donisvaldo Mendonca da Silva, a 33-year-old fisherman.
Nearby, scores of piranhas shook in spasms in two inches of water — what was left of the once flowing Parana de Manaquiri river, an Amazon tributary. Thousands of rotting fish lined the its dry banks.
The governor of Amazonas, a state the size of Alaska, has declared 16 municipalities in crisis as the two-month-long drought strands river dwellers who cannot find food or sell crops.
Global warming link?
Some scientists blame higher ocean temperatures stemming from global warming, which have also been linked to a recent string of unusually deadly hurricanes in the United States and Central America.
Rising air in the north Atlantic, which fuels storms, may have caused air above the Amazon to descend and prevented cloud formations and rainfall, according to some scientists.
“If the warming of the north Atlantic is the smoking gun, it really shows how the world is changing,” said Dan Nepstadt, a researcher with the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Institute.
“The Amazon is a canary in a coal mine for the Earth. As we enter a warming trend we are in uncertain territory,” he said.
Deforestation may also have contributed to the drought because cutting down trees cuts moisture in the air, increasing sunlight penetration onto land.
Other scientists say severe droughts were normal and occurred in cycles before global warming started.
Cars take to dry rivers
In the main river port of Manaus, dozens of boats lay stranded in the cracked dirt of the riverbank after the water level receded. Pontoons of floating docks sit exposed on dry land. People drive cars where only months ago they swam.
An hour from where it joins the Rio Negro to form the Amazon River, the Rio Solimoes is so low that kilometers of exposed riverbank have turned into dunes as winds whip up thick sandstorms. Vultures feed on carrion.
Another major Amazon tributary, Rio Madeira, is so dry that cargo ships carrying diesel from Manaus cannot reach the capital of Rondonia state without scraping the bottom. Instead, fuel used to run power plants has to be hauled in by truck thousands of miles from southern Brazil.
Dry winds and low rainfall have left the rainforest more susceptible to fires that farmers routinely start to clear their pastures.
In normal dry seasons, rains arrive often enough to put out blazes that escape from farms and spread to the forest. This year, the forest is catching fire and staying aflame.
In Acre state, some 100,000 hectares of forest have burned since the drought started and thick black smoke has on occasion shut down airports.
“It’s illegal to burn but everyone around here does it. I do it to get rid of insects and cobras and to create fresh grass for my cows,” a man who would only identify himself as Calixto said while using bundles of green leaves to smother flames and control fires near a highway.
The drought has also upset daily life in communities scattered throughout the basin’s labyrinth of waterways.
“We closed 40 schools and canceled the school year because there’s a lack of food, transport and potable water,” said Gilberto Barbosa, secretary of public administration in Manaquiri. People whose wells have dried up risk drinking river water contaminated by sewage and dead animals.
Sinking water levels have severed connections in the lattice of creeks, lakes and rivers that make up the Amazons motorboat transportation network.
Many people in Manaquiri’s 25 river communities are now forced to walk miles to buy rice or medicines.
Cases of diarrhea, one of the biggest killers in the developing world, are rising in the region. Many fear stagnant water will breed malaria. In response, the state government has flown five tons of basic medicines out to distant villages.
It will be two more months before the river fills again during the rainy season. Even then, residents fear polluted water will float to the top, causing sickness and economic plight.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Manuel Tavares Silva, 39, who farms melons and corn near Manaquiri.