Lessons from the Amazon’s drought

Lakes become mud puddles, river courses look like dirt roads. Images of drought in northern Brazil’s Amazon, alongside floods in the southern states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, provide a glimpse of the country’s future with the worsening of climate change.

The Rio Negro (black river), which joins the Solimões to form the Amazon river, has been the lowest since hydrological measurements began in the region in 1902. Locals walk for kilometres in search of drinking water, entire crops have been lost, and passenger and cargo transport were interrupted as the river became shallower.

The lack of rainfall in the Amazon caused the Santo Antônio Hydroeletric Power Plant, on the Madeira River, to be shut down. It was built as a ‘run-of-river’ system – that is, it does not have a reservoir and depends on a strong river flow to operate. As a result, the power transmission line between Brazil’s North and the country’s populous Southeast regions had to be disconnected.

Some blame El Niño, the natural phenomenon of warming waters in the Pacific Ocean, causing drought in some parts and excessive rain in others. But climatologist Carlos Nobre, a leading Brazilian scientist and member of the UK’s Royal Society, has explained time and again that the Amazon’s climate is already changing. Stronger El Niños are happening as a result of climate change. Once rare Amazonian droughts are becoming frequent, accelerating the loss of forest itself and pushing the region to a point of no return in terms of degradation and desertification.

Agricultural practices are another factor. For several days in October and November 2023, Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, awoke shrouded in clouds of smoke which experts have blamed on fires illegally set to clear land for farming – despite the current Lula administration, with Marina Silva as its Minister of the Environment, at least striving to enforce the law.

Here in the city of São Paulo, we had the warmest winter ever recorded, as well as a fierce drought across the state – an important agribusiness hub. Much of the humidity that makes farming possible here comes from the Amazon. If the forest collapses, the environment of the fertile and populous South risks becoming similar to places on a similar latitude – Atacama in Chile, or the Namibian and Australian deserts.

Climate change is upon us worldwide but these extreme events must be used to mobilize people for change. Here in Brazil we need to re-discuss the future of the country’s oil industry. The government is advocating oil exploration at sea, in the coastal region of the state of Amapá near the mouth of the Amazon river, and there is pressure to grant licenses without due environmental diligence.

In the coming decades, we are likely to see millions of environmental refugees as a result of rising ocean levels and extreme weather events; large-scale famine due to reduction and desertification of fertile farmland, as well as the loss of fishing capacity; and an increase in the number of sick and malnourished people – in addition to conflicts and wars in search of water and land to plant crops.

We have little time left. The drought in the Amazon shows that we are hanging on the edge of the abyss. So, what will we do?