Paraná River

The Prolonged Drought of the Paraná River

For the past two years, the Paraná river has been experiencing its lowest water levels in 77 years. In 2021, the Rio Paraná’s flow rate had plummeted from an average of 17,000 to 6,200 meters a second. This river, the second-longest in South America, traverses three countries: Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. NASA’s Earth Observatory compared July water levels of 2020 and 2019 to illustrate the severity of the crisis.

 

This side-by-side image depicts a segment of the Paraná river in July of 2019 and July exactly one year later. Captured by NASA Earth Observatory.

 

For the past two years, the Paraná river has been experiencing its lowest water levels in 77 years. In 2021, the Rio Paraná’s flow rate had plummeted from an average of 17,000 to 6,200 cubic meters per second. This river, the second-longest in South America, traverses three countries: Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. NASA’s Earth Observatory compared July water levels of 2020 and 2019 to illustrate the severity of the crisis.

This decrease can be attributed to a wide range of environmental factors. Anthropogenic causes like global warming are significant environmental changes that experts identify as likely explanations for the low water levels. Warmer temperatures caused by climate change can intensify evaporation and interfere with typical climate patterns. Scientists also cite deforestation in the Amazon as a significant cause of the Paraná’s drought.

The environmental repercussions of deforestation are not solely vested in a forest’s ability to act as a carbon sink. The Amazon rainforest also plays a crucial role in the water cycle because its trees absorb significant quantities of water (up to 100 gallons per tree per day!) and release it into the air through the process of transpiration. Consequently, the deforestation in the Amazon has disrupted the hydrological cycle as fewer trees limit the forest’s capacity for transpiration which has affected rainfall in the Paranà river basin. Studies have shown that the Amazon’s water cycle affects rainfall patterns in regions as distant as the Midwestern United States; hence, this disruption threatens to affect climates on a global scale.

The disruption of the region’s water cycle is a glaring example of the negative effects the controversial deforestation of the Amazon is having across many South American countries. The trickle-down effects of significantly fewer trees absorbing great quantities of water and releasing it into the air is having a negative, far-reaching impact— not the least of which is contributing to Paraguay’s drought. The persistent drought has adversely affected ecosystems and communities in the area.

 

Transpiration in the Amazon creates an effect called the “River in the Sky” which highlights the importance of atmospheric moisture levels in the Amazon. Photo: Richard Whitecombe; Shutterstock.

 

Fish populations in the region are highly vulnerable to the river’s drought because many of the wetlands which serve as breeding grounds for the animals are unavailable, causing their numbers to dwindle. Furthermore, stagnant waters can lower oxygen content in the water which also affects aquatic species. The decline in the fish population has also become a serious obstacle for the fishermen who rely on the Paraná’s fauna for their livelihoods. 

With almost 100% of its energy being generated from renewable sources, Paraguay’s energy sector is extremely evolved in terms of sustainability, ranking 5th in the world for renewable use. It mainly uses hydroelectric plants for energy production, meaning river flow rate is directly correlated with the country’s production capabilities.

The Paraná River’s Itaipú Dam, located on the Brazil-Paraguay border, is the second largest hydroelectric energy producer in the world and provides Paraguay with a staggering 88.5% of its energy consumed and Brazil with 10.8%.

 

The Itaipú Dam, opened in 1984, is a significant source of hydroelectricity for both Paraguay and Brazil. Photo: Vieira de Queiroz—TYBA/Agencia Fotografica.

 

Since 2019 however, energy production by the dam has dropped 28% due to low water volume in the river. Such a drop in productivity has not yet led to an “energy crisis” according to the Instituto Nacional del Agua (INA), but has led countries to turn to less sustainable energy sources such as thermoelectric, which utilizes fossil fuels. This can create a vicious cycle as an increase in fossil fuel usage exacerbates climate change on the whole. 

Transportational capability is a major determinant of a country’s capacity for economic growth. The Paraná river is part of a significant trade circuit for several South American countries— namely Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, and Bolivia.

 

Map of the Paraná River which serves as a crucial trade waterway for several South American countries. Photo: BBC sourced from Google Maps.

 

Argentina, for example, exports a significant portion of its grain harvest along the Paraná. In recent years, many grain-bearing trade ships have had no choice but to lower their carrying capacities to prevent interference from the increasingly shallow riverbed. This has raised transportation prices which hinders economic growth.

 

In a port near Rosario, Argentina, a grain ship is packed on the Paraná River. Photo: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci/File Photo.

 

Paraguay’s trade has also been notably upset by the persistent drought. The landlocked nation utilizes the Rio Paraná for over 96% of its “overseas trade.” According to Carlos Muñoz, Paraguay’s director of the Centro de Armadores Fluviales y Marítimos, travel time using the river has “tripled.” Furthermore, fishermen in the region have been deeply affected by the drought as catch becomes increasingly rare with the onset of drought.

 

In the Argentine Chaco province, the beams of a pier along the Paraná River exist exposed due to the persistent drought. Photo: Horacio Torres.

 

The drought of the Paraná River is a tangible and severe consequence of the warming climate and deforestation. It illustrates the gravity of these issues and their immense economic and environmental effect. 

 


Sophia Turcot | University of California, San Diego

Sophia Turcot is a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of California San Diego pursuing a major in International Relations: Political Science with a minor in Climate Change Sciences. She’s from Los Angeles, CA and was raised in a coastal town where she gained an interest in conservation and ecology, specifically in ocean ecosystems. She believes education plays a vital role in mitigating global climate issues and is excited to be working with Latina Republic to tell the stories of individuals and communities in Latin America and their mission to preserve some of the most biodiverse and beautiful regions in the world.