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Story Publication logo November 30, 2023

Parched Rivers, Withered Crops Show Dire Impact of Amazon Drought


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A dried-up stretch of the Amazon River near Manacapuru in Brazil’s Amazonas state, Nov. 3, 2023.
A dried-up stretch of the Amazon River near Manacapuru in Brazil’s Amazonas state, Nov. 3, 2023. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

The historic drought in the Brazilian Amazon has imperiled the livelihoods of small farmers and fishermen and slowed shipments of grains and goods.

Justino Lira picked at anemic-looking green beans on his parcel of land near the Amazon River.

The drought this year ruined almost all of his batches of beans, cabbage, corn, cassava and okra. Hardly anything survived. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Lira, 63.

Normally he would ask his grandchildren to help him pick the produce and, twice a week, load up his boat for a trip across the river to the city of Manacapuru. There, he’d sell it to a local supermarket chain, earning about 1,200 Brazilian reais ($245) a month to supplement his teacher’s pension.

But the area in front of his home had become a Mars-like landscape of sand, and as of early November, he’d been without running water for a month. In his community of about 170 families, other people left to find temporary jobs in the city as fishing and family agriculture dried up.

Everyone in this part of Brazil who depends on the Amazon and its tributaries to make a living — from family farmers like Lira to owners of riverside restaurants and leaders of multinational firms — is reeling from the worst drought in the region’s history. It’s another stressor on the already fragile health of the Amazon rainforest, a crucial bulwark against climate change.

Justino Lira stands on his land, where the drought ruined almost all his batches of beans, wild cabbage, corn, cassava and okra. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.
Lira displays a dried-up bean from his field. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

Experts blame a combination of the El Niño weather phenomenon combined with heating in the Atlantic Ocean, likely aggravated by the climate crisis. They say severe droughts in the Amazon and other extreme weather events — like the record flooding experienced in 2021 — will likely increase and intensify as global temperatures rise, adding extra pressure to one of the world’s most challenging business environments.

“What projections show is that extreme climatic events are more likely to happen in the Amazon, especially extreme droughts,” said Erika Berenguer, a climate scientist and senior research associate at Oxford University.

The drought has directly affected some 600,000 people in Amazonas state, where Lira lives, and all of its 62 municipalities have declared a state of emergency. Nearly four times the size of California, Amazonas covers an area of about 600,000 square miles, much of which is only accessible via plane or boat.

“Our main route to connect with Brazil and the world is by the river,” said the state development secretary Serafim Correa. “In the Amazon, the river commands life.”

Lailton Dias da Silva, 48, who lives about 140 miles from Lira on the Rio Madeira Sustainable Development Reserve, told Bloomberg Green that the 44 communities that make up the reserve were suffering a double hit from low production and difficulties for boats that collect produce.

“It’s caused a total imbalance in our family farming,” he said.

Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, has a population over 2 million and is growing fast. But it is the most isolated of Brazil’s major cities — especially during times of drought. When rivers become shallow, citizens who live outside the capital can’t necessarily get there. Some captains of passenger boats stop traveling to more isolated parts of the state for fear of getting stuck in sandbanks or hitting rocks.

Darli Leão, 50, owns what is usually a floating river bar and restaurant in the Lake Puraquequara area of Manaus. It now sits on mudflats where the lake has dried up. He said he’d been forced to lay off six members of staff and take on 10,000 reais (about $2,000) in debt due to a lack of customers. He also missed out on what should have been a lucrative recent municipal holiday because customers didn’t show up.

Darli Leão at his bar and restaurant, which is normally floating on the waters of Lago Puraquequara, in Manaus, Brazil. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.
The drought’s severe impact on the lake has kept customers away, and Leão has had to lay off staff and take on debt. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

“I never imagined something like this,” he said, remembering that during the severe 2010 drought he still had some business. “The worry now is, will it be like this each year?”

At the nighttime fish market, fishermen spoke of difficulties caused by the drought — more time spent out on the river due to navigation difficulties, which in turn increases the risk of fish going bad and pushes up costs.

“The costs of fuel, of ice, of everything, has gone up,” said José Pereira, 62, who said he was forced to pass on the extra costs to consumers.

Fish being readied for sale at Feira da Panair, Manaus' traditional nighttime fish market. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.
The Feira da Panair market. Manaus fishermen say the drought has made the logistics of their work more difficult. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

Large businesses are feeling the impact as well. Bemol is often dubbed “the Amazon of the Amazon” for its ability to deliver items people order on their cell phones to far-flung towns in the interior. Chief Executive Officer Denis Minev was apprehensive going into Black Friday, the most important time of the year for retailers, which in Brazil runs through the whole of November.

The biggest problem has been receiving goods. Containers typically arrive at Santos in São Paulo, Latin America’s largest port, before traveling some 2,500 miles along Brazil’s coast to where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Amazon River and then another 1,000 miles to Manaus.

At the Super Terminais port in Manaus, brand-new electric cranes powered by solar energy sat idle because of the drought. Large ships carrying thousands of containers were unable to dock for weeks because of low water levels, forcing firms to use barges that only carry 10% of the cargo that ships do.

Trucks at the Bemol distribution center in the Manaus tax-free zone. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.
At Chibatão port in Manaus, large ships carrying thousands of containers were unable to dock for weeks. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

Minev said there had been “an incredible increase in overhead costs” as companies had also been forced to take up costly truck services to deliver goods along the isolated state’s unpaved BR-319 jungle highway.

Manaus has a free-trade zone, an industrial complex built in 1967. It hosts hundreds of factories for multinational brands like Samsung, Honda and Harley Davidson. About 40% of computers, cell phones and tablets sold in Brazil are produced in the zone, as well as almost all of the country’s air conditioning units, televisions, microwaves and dishwashers.

“It is a very important industrial complex for electronics production in the Americas,” said José do Nascimento Junior, president of the Brazilian association of electronic products. “The rivers of Manaus make it this way — river transport is three times cheaper than road and river.”

With the drought, however, some factories have given workers early “collective holidays” as production has slowed, but not stopped, due to complications with sending goods out.

Samsung, the largest producer of electronics in Brazil and one of the companies that has given workers such holidays, said in an email: “We will operate our production program flexibly to respond to any need and minimize impact.”

In recent years, the region’s waterways and ports have also become increasingly important for international grain exports. Brazil is the world’s leading producer and exporter of soybeans.

Manaus’ Super Terminais port. The region has become increasingly important for international grain exports. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

Sergio Mendes, general director of Brazil’s National Cereal Exporters Association, said the country was still on course to export a record volume of soy and corn.

“There are difficulties,” he said. “But nothing that had not been foreseen in advance by the traders.”

Brazil’s government announced measures to combat the drought at the beginning of October, including 138 million reais ($28 million) of federal funds to dredging the lower reaches of the Amazon River, near Manaus, and the mouth of the Rio Madeira, a major tributary.

But just a few days later, both rivers were so shallow that containerized cargo ships couldn’t pass. The Rio Negro in Manaus had already reached its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1902.

Vessels on the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, disappear in the smoke caused by forest-clearing fires.Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

The drought began in early September and climate scientists expect it to last until early December. The rainy season usually begins by late October or early November.

Amazonas state officials said they will bring forward a plan to dredge the shallowest parts of the Amazon to prevent transport interruptions in 2024. The state government is also giving financial aid to fishermen and providing fresh water and food baskets to communities that are isolated due to the drought.

But there’s widespread apprehension about the near future.

“Climate change is already a reality for these communities,” said Valcléia Solidade, superintendent of community development at the Foundation for Amazon Sustainability, a Manaus-based nonprofit. “But no one wants to pay the bill for investing in structures that reduce the impacts they are feeling today.”

A man carries a jug of drinking water at Lago Puraquequara. Image by Avener Prado/Bloomberg. Brazil, 2023.

This year has been the hottest year on record globally, and next year is expected to be even hotter. Scientists predict a weaker rainy season in the upcoming months, which, combined with the peak of El Niño and its effects next year, could make the 2024 dry season even more severe.

A prolonged drought could tank the economy of Amazonas state: The largest portion of its GDP comes from the Manaus free-trade zone, which generated 160 billion reais in revenue in 2022, a major driver behind Manaus having the fifth-highest GDP in Brazil.

“A drought longer than this year’s, one of four or five months, would choke industry,” said Correa. “From now on we’ll have to dredge the rivers every year, before the drought season, to avoid everything coming to a halt.”