Photograph of the severe drought in the Río Negro in the Amazon, Brazil, 28 October 2023. EFE/ André Coelho

Journey to the heart of the Amazon’s worst drought in decades

Jon Martin Cullell

Santa Helena do Inglés, Brazil, Oct 29 (EFE) – The pier in Santa Helena do Inglés is now one in name only: it has not received a boat for two months, and if you were to jump from its splintered planks, you would land face down in the mud, which is what’s left now that the river is more than a mile away from the dock.

Santa Helena is one of 60 municipalities in the Brazilian state of Amazonas – out of a total of 62 – that have declared a state of emergency due to the historic drought.

With the flow of the Negro River at its lowest level in 120 years, the riverside communities that depend on this great water snake for tourism, fishing and supplies are experiencing a moment of suffocation.

Photograph of the severe drought in the Río Negro in the Amazon, Brazil, 28 October 2023. EFE/ André Coelho

Obstacles to navigation

As Marcos Chaga left Manaus for Saint Helena, he kept his eyes on the side of the boat for fear of the sandbars: “It’s the first time for everyone”.

The Negro River, the Amazon’s largest tributary, was drying up at a rate of 30 centimeters a day in July, but the pace has slowed in recent weeks, much to the relief of the local population.

Photograph of the severe drought in the Río Negro in the Amazon, Brazil, 28 October 2023. EFE/ André Coelho

“If it goes any lower, we won’t be able to get out,” says Chaga, 37.

Behind the decline are recurring climatic factors such as El Niño, which raises the temperature of the Pacific Ocean and changes rainfall patterns in South America, diminishing rain in the Amazon.

In addition, the Atlantic Ocean is getting warmer as a result of climate change, which has increased the intensity of droughts in the region.

In September, 44 millimeters of rain fell in Manaus, compared with an average of 79, and the thermometer recorded the highest temperature in 33 years that month, at 39.3°C.

Running out of medicine

After an hour and a half, the boat docks at a point about 40 minutes’ walk from the tree line where the old shore used to be.

The riverbed is now a beach of cracked mud, like pottery broken into a million pieces.

At over 35 degrees the ground simmers, and Sebastião Brito emerges from under a straw hat to lead the boat passengers to the shore.

Photograph of the severe drought in the Río Negro in the Amazon, Brazil, 28 October 2023. EFE/ André Coelho

“I’ve never been to the sertão (Brazil’s semiarid region), but I imagine it must be like this,” he says, stamping his sandal on the ground.

In other dry seasons, Brito and other fishermen were able to earn 400 reais (about $80) a month per family, this year they have earned nothing.

The fish have moved deeper into the river, there are fewer of them and they are much harder to catch.

1995, 1998, 2005, 2010… Each drought has its place in the community’s memory, but none compares to 2023’s. “No one has ever seen anything like it, everything has stopped,” sums up 49-year-old Brito.

The sky is whitewashed by the smoke from dozens of fires. So far this year, more than 18,000 outbreaks have been registered in Brazil’s Amazonian state.

Brito says the drought is an opportunity to change practices such as burning land for crops, one of the main causes of fires in the region.

On the way to Santa Helena, he passes through the community of Saracá, whose health post, a simple wooden house with a tin roof, has been closed for two months.

Antonio Vidal, 59, ran out of insulin to treat his diabetes six days ago and says he feels “weak” when he goes for a walk.

He has been taking another medicine, but “it’s not the same” and tomorrow he will have to take a boat to Manaus to try to get insulin.

An inn without tourists

Photograph of the severe drought in the Río Negro in the Amazon, Brazil, 28 October 2023. EFE/ André Coelho

From Saracá, it is another half-hour’s walk along the riverbed to Santa Helena, where the yellow-painted, now-empty municipal inn stands out.

It is the village’s great hope for progress: it has capacity for 10 people, air conditioning in the rooms and a beautiful view of the river.

The recently appointed manager, Keith Oliveira, 53, is not despairing: “You have to go through the difficult things to get to the good things and say ‘we won'”.

The “new waters”, as Oliveira calls the beginning of the flood season, usually arrive on 2 November, but the weather has been unpredictable and now no one is sure.

“Only God knows,” the locals repeat, since just a few days before November 2, the boat to return to Manaus still waits in the mud more than a kilometer away from the old shore.

EFE was invited on this journey by the NGO Fundação Amazônia Sustentável.

jmc/mcd

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