HERNANDARIAS, Paraguay — In most years when the rains are normal, four Olympic swimming pools of water pass through the gigantic Itaipú Dam every second, generating electricity for Paraguay and Brazil and allowing ships and barges to ‘export grain as far as China.
Since 2019, however, precipitation levels have dropped sharply – not just here, but across much of the heart of South America – and have left a vast strip of drought. Dozens of hydroelectric dams in Brazil have cracked, pushing up energy prices there. And river transport of soybeans, the regional cash cow, has been severely hampered in the cereal center of Rosario, Argentina.
But it is Paraguay, a landlocked country of seven million people surrounded by giant neighbors and dependent on two major rivers, that has been hit the hardest, according to government officials, climate scientists and businessmen who depend on waterways. The dry season occurs every year, but this region has not suffered from such an extreme drought since the 1940s, they say.
As world leaders prepare for the global climate conference that begins Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, Paraguay offers a glimpse of what climate change can mean, in the long term, for countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. climate change.
This California country of grain fields, cattle pastures and fruit groves is fed by its two rivers, the Paraná and Paraguay, together measuring 4,657 miles. Rivers provide drinking water to cities and serve as arteries connecting Paraguay to the outside world, highways through which agricultural exports help feed 80 million people abroad while allowing the import of fuel, machinery, chemicals and fertilizers.
“It’s been 25 years since we produced so little energy,” said Hugo Zárate, the superintendent of operations in Itaipú, which is the second largest power generation dam in the world after the Three Dam. Gorges in China. “This drought continued throughout 2020, and we thought that in 2021 we would do better. But the drought worsened and the water flow declined further.
The consequences for Paraguay, a country that uses its rivers for 96% of its trade, could be seen at the level of private grain silos and the loading port on the Paraná River managed by agribusiness giant Trociuk. Industries.
Earlier this month, the water level was so low that convoys of giant barges in a country with the third fleet of barges were unable to transport grain for export. Instead, the grain was loaded onto trucks which then had to cross two-lane roads to the deeper Paraguay River, where the barges loaded to 50% of their capacity.
But the cost is enormous and unsustainable. While a truck can carry 30 tonnes of grain, a barge can carry up to 2,000 tonnes. And the convoy of barges that normally ply the rivers here can carry 30,000 tonnes, a job that would require 350 trucks.
“We find that over the years there is less water than normal,” said Carlos Trociuk, who runs the company in Encarnación in southern Paraguay, across the Paraná River from the Argentina. “Sailing on the river is so important that if we don’t solve this transport problem, it will affect the country’s income enormously. “
At the Itaipú dam on the Paraná, the water flow has decreased since 2019 by more than 30%. And the dam’s revenue for Paraguay is expected to drop 40% this year to $ 365 million, or 2.8% of the government’s budget, or about half of what it was in 2016. This year, the dam, jointly managed by Brazil and Paraguay, is expected to generate 65,000 gigawatt hours, down from the record 103,000 GW hours in 2016.
The decline has strained Brazil’s energy grid, which depends on Itaipú for 11% of its electricity. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called on Brazilians to avoid using elevators and reduce their electricity consumption. “Help us,” he said on his Facebook page last month.
Although droughts can occur regularly and be caused by complex circumstances, one of the factors behind long droughts can be found hundreds of kilometers away in the Amazon. Some climatologists say evidence seems to show that deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest alters weather patterns, with the dry season becoming hotter and drier as rain levels fall below normal during the rainy season. rains.
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An area the size of Missouri has been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon since 2004. Farmland has replaced trees which, according to Lonnie Thompson, a climatologist who studies hydrology in Latin America, produce much of the rainwater. by evaporation.
“When you go from forest to cropland, you change… the water storage capacity in the vegetation, which was the norm for this system,” said Mr. Thompson, professor at Ohio State. University.
And although the six-month rainy season has begun, a sustained drought in its third year is unlikely to ebb, according to climatologists, government officials and agro-entrepreneurs who track the weather.
Dr Norman Breuer, a Paraguayan scientist who studies the impact of climate on agriculture, said that while it is likely that climate change could lead to longer and drier droughts, he said he would not can be determined for sure before there is a long period intense dry season trend line to examine. But he said it’s clear, for now, that the La Niña weather phenomenon signals more drought for this coming year.
“That doesn’t mean it won’t rain,” Dr Breuer said. “This means it rains less than the historic median. “
For more than two years, farmers had to contend with grilling weather that cooked their fields and evaporated all the moisture. They learned that after a drought it can get so cold that it destroys crops. Many climatologists argue that a pendulum swing in weather conditions can be a byproduct of climate change.
“When it rains little, winters are harsher and colder,” said Alfred Paetkau, a member of a cooperative of 300 farming families descended from Northern Europe and speaking a German dialect.
Recent weather conditions, he said, have caused a 60% drop in the yield per acre of corn and wheat on his farm this year compared to 2018. Nationally, the decline has been smaller, but yields have fallen for soybeans, corn and wheat in recent years, data from farm associations show.
At the same time, Mr Paetkau said he saw the price of fertilizers and herbicides, as well as gasoline, skyrocket due to the difficulties of importing on rivers too shallow to navigate.
“There is little water,” he said. “And for the transport of products, when the river is not loaded with water, prices go up. “
On a recent day, 3 inches of rain fell, leaving Mr. Paetkau hoping that more rain would come. But it will take a lot to reverse the conditions that have been the norm since 2019 and that have left farms parched, he said.
Earlier this month on the Paraná, 39-year-old Antonio Barrios and a friend returned from days of fishing with only one fish, a large, pink-colored salmon. With the water so low, there is a lack of oxygen and the fish are not running, he said.
“We would get 20 or 30 pounds in a week of fishing – this time it was just a salmon, about 2.5 pounds,” said the fisherman, about 5.5 pounds.
To get the barges back up and running, local business leaders dredged the river to make it deeper, a privately funded venture. But this solution takes time and capital.
On a recent day, the Paraná River outside Mr. Trociuk’s office window was not even 5 feet deep, hampering tugs and making it difficult even for empty barges.
Although Mr Trociuk feared the rainy season would not provide enough water to turn the situation around, he said he was hopeful. A few days later, enough rain fell for the barges to operate again, but not at full capacity so as not to get stuck in the sandbars.
“There is this opportunity now – the water coming in – and we have to take advantage of it,” he said. “We hope more will come because I haven’t slept in months. “
Write to Juan Forero et [email protected]
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