Home to the greatest variety of life on Earth, the Amazon is both the largest rainforest and the largest river basin in the world, covering over 6,000 square kilometers.
In a normal year the region receives over two meters (seven feet) of rainfall. Yet since January 2005 this fabled ‘land of waters’ has been affected by an increasingly catastrophic drought, estimated to be the worst in 40 years.
From Peru to Eastern Brazil the effects of the drought are dramatic – several major tributaries as well as parts of the main river itself contain only a fraction of their normal volumes of water, and lakes are drying up. The consequences for local people, animals and the forest itself are impossible to estimate now, but they are likely to be serious.
In an area with few roads, no river transport means no incoming supplies, and also leaves local farmers unable to sell their crops. River floodplains have dried up – people can now walk and cycle in places where previously canoes and riverboats were the only means of transport. Inevitably, fish are dying in their millions – their bodies clog the rivers, poisoning the water and making it impossible for local people to drink.
"This drought and its effects are really shocking," says Carlos Rittl, Greenpeace Brazil’s climate campaigner. "Towns are lacking food, medicines and fuel because boats cannot get through." To make matters worse, as the rainforest becomes increasingly dry, damaging wildfires are regularly breaking out across the region, destroying thousands of hectares of trees.
Deforestation and Climate Change
So how has this happened? Whilst identifying the causes of the drought is a complex business, two driving forces are certainly playing a large part – deforestation and climate change.
According to Rittl, "The Amazon is caught between these two destructive forces, and their combined effects threaten to flip its ecosystems from forest to savannah."
Despite warnings from environmentalists, the Brazilian government was caught unawares by the scale of the emergency. Only since mid-October has the region been declared a disaster area, and, although there is now a coordinated plan for the air force to deliver tons of food and medicines to over 100,000 families in more than 30 cities, many people will have to wait weeks before they receive any aid.
Greenpeace has been closely monitoring the development of the drought and its effects over the past three months: travelling to the worst affected areas to document the situation, collecting testimonies from the local people and interviewing scientists about the drought, its causes and consequences. The movement has also loaned its Amazon plane to the government of the State of Amazonas to help sending aid to people in remote areas.
Greenpeace has also continued to call on governments to take urgent action to stop deforestation and commit to the massive CO² reductions needed to protect the Earth’s biodiversity and the millions of people who are at risk from the impacts of climate change and ancient forest destruction.
Greenpeace – www.greenpeace.org