October 10, 2005

Amazon rainforest suffers worst drought in decades

By Terry Wade

MANAQUIRI, Brazil (Reuters) - The worst drought in more
than 40 years is damaging the world's biggest rainforest,
plaguing the Amazon basin with wildfires, sickening river
dwellers with tainted drinking water, and killing fish by the
millions as streams dry up.

"What's awful for us is that all these fish have died and
when the water returns there will be barely any more,"
Donisvaldo Mendonca da Silva, a 33-year-old fisherman, said.

Nearby, scores of piranhas shook in spasms in two inches of
water -- what was left of the once flowing Parana de Manaquiri
river, an Amazon tributary. Thousands of rotting fish lined the
its dry banks.

The governor of Amazonas, a state the size of Alaska, has
declared 16 municipalities in crisis as the two-month-long
drought strands river dwellers who cannot find food or sell

Some scientists blame higher ocean temperatures stemming
from global warming, which have also been linked to a recent
string of unusually deadly hurricanes in the United States and
Central America.

Rising air in the north Atlantic, which fuels storms, may
have caused air above the Amazon to descend and prevented cloud
formations and rainfall, according to some scientists.

"If the warming of the north Atlantic is the smoking gun,
it really shows how the world is changing," said Dan Nepstadt,
an ecologist from the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research
Institute, funded by the U.S. government and private grants.

"The Amazon is a canary in a coal mine for the earth. As we
enter a warming trend we are in uncertain territory," he said.

Deforestation may also have contributed to the drought
because cutting down trees cuts moisture in the air, increasing
sunlight penetration onto land.

Other scientists say severe droughts were normal and
occurred in cycles before global warming started.


In the main river port of Manaus, dozens of boats lay
stranded in the cracked dirt of the riverbank after the water
level receded. Pontoons of floating docks sit exposed on dry
land. People drive cars where only months ago they swam.

An hour from where it joins the Rio Negro to form the
Amazon River, the Rio Solimoes is so low that kilometers
(miles) of exposed riverbank have turned into dunes as winds
whip up thick sandstorms. Vultures feed on carrion.

Another major Amazon tributary, Rio Madeira, is so dry that
cargo ships carrying diesel from Manaus cannot reach the
capital of Rondonia state without scraping the bottom. Instead,
fuel used to run power plants has to be hauled in by truck
thousands of kilometers (miles) from southern Brazil.

Dry winds and low rainfall have left the rainforest more
susceptible to fires that farmers routinely start to clear
their pastures.

In normal dry seasons, rains arrive often enough to put out
blazes that escape from farms and spread to the forest. This
year, the forest is catching fire and staying aflame.

In Acre state, some 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of
forest have burned since the drought started and thick black
smoke has on occasion shut down airports.

"It's illegal to burn but everyone around here does it. I
do it to get rid of insects and cobras and to create fresh
grass for my cows," a man who would only identify himself as
Calixto said while using bundles of green leaves to smother
flames and control fires near a highway.


The drought has also upset daily life in communities
scattered throughout the basin's labyrinth of waterways.

"We closed 40 schools and canceled the school year because
there's a lack of food, transport and potable water," said
Gilberto Barbosa, secretary of public administration in
Manaquiri. People whose wells have dried up risk drinking river
water contaminated by sewage and dead animals.

Sinking water levels have severed connections in the
lattice of creeks, lakes and rivers that make up the Amazons
motorboat transportation network.

Many people in Manaquiri's 25 riverine communities are now
forced to walk kilometers (miles) to buy rice or medicines.

Cases of diarrhea, one of the biggest killers in the
developing world, are rising in the region. Many fear stagnant
water will breed malaria. In response, the state government has
flown five tons of basic medicines out to distant villages.

It will be two more months before the river fills again
during the rainy season. Even then, residents fear polluted
water will float to the top, causing sickness and economic

"I've never seen anything like this," said Manuel Tavares
Silva, 39, who farms melons and corn near Manaquiri, a town 149
km (93 miles) from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state.