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Prolonged drought brings unprecedented changes to Amazonian communities in Pará

The 2023 severe drought in the Brazilian Amazon established record lows for rivers like the Negro (pictured) and the Tapajós. Image courtesy of Alex Pazuello/Secom.

  • A severe drought across the Amazon Rainforest continues to be felt along the Tapajós River in Brazil’s state of Pará, where locals say it “is the worst one ever.”
  • The Tapajós River has suffered from the lowest water level ever recorded, reaching 94 centimeters (37 inches) — 38 cm (15 in) below the level recorded in the same period of the year in 2010 during the historic drought.
  • The long, dry period has sparked a record number of fires in the state of Pará, covering the region in thick clouds of smoke.
  • Riverside communities have been cut off by low river levels, and experts say the drought could impact fish populations for the next three years.

SANTARÉM, Brazil — It was the first time in his life that Robson Chaves de Souza had seen the Tapajós River so far back from the shore. In October, the sandy beach that divides his community and the river became a gaping expanse of parched mud. Even now, the land in the community remains parched and dusty. “This drought for us is the worst one ever,” he said.

Souza lives in the Surucuá community in Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve along the Tapajós River, a Brazilian Amazon region in the west of Pará state. Like other Indigenous and riverside communities in the area, they depend on the regular wet and dry seasons to plant fruits and vegetables for the coming months. This year, however, is different.

“We always wait for October’s rain so we can clear our fields to plant something,” he said. “Now there are people who haven’t planted anything because the rain hasn’t come.”

“I planted a lot of açaí and cacao, but they all died because of the lack of rain,” he added. “Very little survived.”

Robson Chaves de Souza lives in the Surucuá community in the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve along the Tapajós River. He describes the drought as “the worst one ever,” having never seen a drought so severe. Image © Francisco Maia/Amazônia 4.0.

This year, the Amazon Rainforest has been struck by one of its worst droughts ever. The Tapajós River, a 1,992-kilometer-long (1,238-mile-long) tributary that is 16 km (10 mi) wide in parts, was one of the main waterways affected. On Oct. 8 the water level was reduced to 94 centimeters (37 inches) according to data from the Civil Defense of Santarém — 38 cm (15 in) below the level recorded in the same period of the year in 2010 during the historic drought.

With such low water levels, boats have run aground on sandbanks that have never appeared before, Paulo de Tarso de Albuquerque, a local fisherman in Itaituba in the upper basin of the River Tapajós, told Mongabay. The river retreated so much, he said, that Indigenous communities living on the riverbanks became isolated and now have to walk up to 1 km (0.6 mi) to reach the waterways.

“I’m 40 years old and a drought like this has never happened before,” he said.

Droughts occur naturally in the Amazon Rainforest, a biome governed by one dry and one wet season per year. December marks the start of the rainy period, but locals remain waiting for the rain.

“The river is hardly filling up, just inches at a time,” Albuquerque said. “It rained very lightly, but hardly anything. The water arriving in our region is coming from rain in other places far away. But the rain here isn’t enough to fill the river.”

A brown haze lingered over the Tapajós and Amazon rivers in the city of Santarém in mid-November and had been there since October. The eye-stinging smoke had a potent smell of burning wood. Image © Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

A state emergency

The drought prompted Santarém, a city straddling the meeting point of the Tapajós and Amazon rivers, to declare a 90-day state of emergency Oct. 5 after the drought compromised waterway transport and access to drinking water.

Rivers are the only means of transportation and access in some parts of the Amazon. As the water levels dropped, several riverside communities in the Lower Amazon and Tapajós regions became cut off, preventing them from getting essential food and water supplies. The Santarém City Council has had to deliver hundreds of food baskets and water to these isolated populations.

The droughts have also had a major impact on people’s livelihoods and income.

Squinting in the early morning sun, Raimundo Gilmar Farias da Costa looked across the Tapajós River as he stocked his boat with water and fruit for the day’s excursion. As a tour guide, he makes his income by taking tourists to some of the most picturesque spots in Alter do Chão, a destination known for its seasonal white beaches in the middle of the rainforest. But some places along the river have been off-limits in the last few months.

“The river dropped this year and stayed low. There were places I couldn’t go. Everything was so dry, the water was so low,” he said.

Besides tourism, fishing is an important source of income in the region. In Alter do Chão, fishing opportunities have become almost nonexistent after the river shrunk to unprecedented low levels, said local fisherman Dagio Odalison Correa. “The drought hurt many people because they had no work and no income,” he said. “It has become difficult to survive on fishing at the moment.”

In Itaituba, about 300 km (186 mi) south down the river from Alter do Chão, the drought has impacted fishing in other ways. “It became very easy to catch fish because they get confined within lakes,” Albuquerque said. The region has more river islands, creating small lagoons between them as the river recedes.

The abundance of fish gathered in small areas proved irresistible to some fishermen who caught large quantities of them. However, overfishing now could impact fish populations in the years to come. “This could delay or even prevent some aquatic species from reproducing,” Gustavo Hallwass, a researcher and professor at the Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation at the Federal University of Lavras, told Mongabay. “The results of this severe drought will be felt in two or three years.”

“The river dropped this year and stayed low. There were places I couldn’t go,” tour guide Raimundo Gilmar Farias da Costa told Mongabay. Image courtesy of Raimundo Gilmar Farias da Costa.

A fiery sequel

The drought has done more than shrink the river; it’s also aggravated a series of fires. Since the start of October, clouds of smoke stretching hundreds of kilometers have been hanging over the west of the state. Pará registered 11,378 fires in October, the highest number since the same month in 2008 and an increase of 52% from last year, according to data from Brazil’s space research agency, INPE. In November, 8,188 fires were recorded compared to 4,507 in the same period last year (an 82% jump), the highest since 2017.

Pará has also had the highest number of fires this year compared with any other state in the Legal Amazon, registering 39,584 so far. Second behind Pará is Mato Grosso with 20,709 fires, closely followed by Amazonas, also devastated by droughts and fires, with 19,499 fires this year. Most of the fires are linked to illegal deforestation, carelessness such as throwing cigarette ends on the ground and mismanagement of authorized fire use to clear vegetation in rural properties, which burn out of control under such dry conditions.

This year’s extreme drought is largely aggravated by El Niño, a climate pattern influenced by the warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. While it’s a naturally occurring event, experts say this El Niño is more severe than usual. “The magnitude of El Niño has been accentuated by climate change,” Hallwass said.

Some locals expect the rain may only come as late as January, a delay that is already changing the Tapajós River ecosystem. Souza, the resident of Surucuá, gestured to the forest that encircled the houses in his community. He had only recently come back from spending several days in the forest, where he hunts for food and sleeps out in the open. “The humidity is different [in the forest],” he said. “We notice the dryness of the trees and the climate.”

“We notice our lips drying in the middle of the forest. We feel the hot air, we feel the smell of dust. It wasn’t like that before.”

Fishermen who fish along the Tapajós River told Mongabay that this is the driest they’ve seen the river in decades. Image © Sarah Brown for Mongabay.


Banner image: The 2023 severe drought in the Brazilian Amazon established record lows for rivers like the Negro (pictured) and the Tapajós. Image courtesy of Alex Pazuello/Secom.

People and nature suffer as historic drought fuels calamitous Amazon fires

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