October 13, 2005

Supplies Delivered to Brazil After Drought

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Authorities on Wednesday began a massive relief effort to help thousands of families along the Amazon River hurt by a serious drought that has made river travel to many jungle areas nearly impossible, officials said.

The water level of the Amazon - the world's biggest river by volume - has dropped by several feet because of a monthslong drought, officials said. Most of the water course is navigable but some key tributaries have nearly dried up, halting travel and harming the important fishing industry.

The government of the jungle state of Amazonas said it was dispatching thousands of emergency workers to the most seriously stricken region - upriver from the central Amazon city of Manaus, which is located 1,660 miles northwest of Sao Paulo - to deliver food and supplies to some 32,000 families that now can only be reached by air, said Hiel Levy, the state government's press spokesman.

The government's Geological Service said a dramatic decline in rainfall this year has caused water level along the entire Amazon to drop an average of six feet from its normal 55-foot water depth.

Large boats can still travel up the Amazon River to Manaus, nearly 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, according to the geological Service. Beyond that, cargo must be loaded on to small boats. In parts of the river, travel has been limited to daylight hours to keep boats from running aground.

Army troops and state civil defense were being sent to isolated communities to dig wells and deliver drinking water because thousands of fish killed by the drought have made the remaining water in rivers undrinkable, a government statement said.

Levy said that due to the drought, malaria cases in the city of Coari, 220 miles west of Manaus, have increased, prompting the government to send medicine and pesticides.

Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with the Brazil's National Space Sciences Institute, said the rivers will likely take more than a month to begin returning to normal.

"The rains have already returned, but the rivers will only begin to fill up in the middle of November," Nobre said by phone.

The prolonged drought has affected all of the Amazon jungle's rivers, with many of them reaching the lowest levels ever recorded, Nobre said.

Last week the Solimoes River, one of the largest branches of the Amazon, fell to just five feet from its normal 41-foot depth, according to the geological service. The four cities that were declared disaster areas last week are located along the Solimoes.

On Tuesday, the city of Humaita next to the Madeira River, another major tributary of the Amazon, became the fifth city declared a disaster area by the governor.