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By Anita Kirpalani, Contributing Reporter

AMAZONAS, BRAZIL – On October 24th, the Rio Negro (Black River), one of the tributaries of the Amazon River, dropped to its lowest recorded level since the first measurements in 1902. Following a severe drought, the river reached 13.63 meters in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, and broke the previous record of 1962.

Rio Negro, Amazon Basin, Brazil
In the Amazon basin, Rio Negro's banks dried up, photo by Rodrigo Baleia courtesy of Greenpeace.

A month before that, the Solimões River, another of the Amazon River’s tributaries, and the Amazon River itself had fallen to record levels in places like Tabatinga, on the border with Colombia.

According to local authorities, 27 of the 62 municipalities of the Amazonas state have declared a state of emergency. The local population that mainly relies on fluvial transportation is currently suffering a shortage in food, medicines, fuel and drinkable water.

According to Daniel Oliveira, a hydrology expert with the CPRM, Brazil’s hydrological service, the central part of the river is still navigable, but some of the branches and effluents have dried out, revealing sandbanks and leaving villagers whose houses used to be on the riverfront, stranded and isolated. The risk of dislocation for fishermen who used to fish in front of their houses is also great.

“Even in the navigable parts, the consequences on the population are important. A five day trip now takes seven days, and has to be done with more detours. As a consequence, more fuel is used, the price increases, and so does the price of other commodities”, says Oliveira.

The drought also has other environmental consequences, with landslides near the riverbanks in São Paulo de Olivença, where according to the local authorities, the front of the city collapsed, affecting more than 200 houses and the Amazon forest left more susceptible to the increasing risk of fire.

The Amazonas state authorities said that 600 tones of aid kits have been distributed by plane and boat, with food, medicines and especially water filters given that the shortage of drinkable water is the most pressing risk in what is paradoxically the biggest hydrographical basin of the world.

The government announced last week that it would provide R$23 billion (US$13.5 billion) in emergency aid, but has so far only released R$6 billion for those municipalities in a state of emergency. On election day, Omar Aziz, re-elected Governor of the Amazonas state, explained that this was due to the electoral restrictions and the risk that the government would be charged of electoral crime. He also said he was expecting the visit of President Lula in order to discuss a plan of action regarding the drought.

Rio Negro river bed
Boats stranded on the Rio Negro river bed, photo by Rodrigo Baleia, courtesy of Greenpeace.

Low levels of precipitation, especially in Colombia and Peru, have affected the level of the rivers, and it it is hoped that the rainy season in Manaus, which should be starting in November, will alleviate the situation.

The record drought is not an isolated incident, though. With major drought in 2005 and a historic flood in 2009, the Amazon River has been experiencing rapid and extreme variations over the past few years. “The Amazonas state is going through a permanent emergency situation and this is very serious”, says Rafael Cruz from Greenpeace Brazil.

Cruz continued; “It’s too early to say that all this is provoked by global warming but one cannot ignore the possibility. If this is not climate change right now, it at least gives us the sensation of what it will be if we don’t limit carbon emissions.”

The drought comes at a time when climate change has gained renewed political attention with the unexpectedly strong results of the Green Party candidate Marina Silva at the first round of the Presidential elections and the attempt of the two other candidates, Dilma Rousseff and José Serra to appeal to her electorate even if some issues, like the Belmonte dam remain controversial.

For now, President Lula has reaffirmed a commitment to climate change in view of the next U.N. climate summit in Cancun in late November, with Brazil already agreeing to a fifty percent emission reduction in 2050. Yet after the failure of the Copenhagen summit to deliver a binding international agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, expectations for Cancun are low.

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