Historic drought means you can now walk through the dry bed of South America’s second longest river

A video showing people crossing the Paraná River, on the border of Argentina and Paraguay, has gone viral in recent days. The Paraná, which is the second longest river in South America, has reached its lowest level in decades, with catastrophic consequences for the environment and the local economy. This crisis is the result of a historical drought linked to human activities.

This video posted online in early August shows people walking along a dry riverbed. The woman recording the video says: “We are walking along the Paraná River. It is very sad […] Look, there is Paraguay, on the other side of the road … Caraguatay Island … Look at the water that remains … The Argentine coast where we are walking … “

This video shows how dry the Paraná riverbed has become near Caraguatay Island (geolocation here), which lies between the Argentine province of Misiones and Paraguay. It was posted online on August 8 and has since been picked up by various media outlets.

The Paraná, which stretches for more than 5,000 kilometers, is the second longest river in South America, after the Amazon. It starts in Brazil, then goes through Paraguay to Argentina, where it finally ends in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Paraná River and its tributaries. © Wikipedia

The lowest water levels since 1944

The video above was picked up by numerous media outlets. However, it is not the first video to document the decline in water levels; many other videos showing the river drying up in different places have also been posted online since levels began to drop two years ago. According to the National Water Institute of Argentina, the Paraná has reached its lowest levels since 1944. And it is very possible that it could fall to new lows in the coming months.

This video, like the first, shows Caraguatay Island. It was filmed by a drone operated by Marcos E. Sosa and two of his friends on August 15, 2021.

These photos were taken by Vale Silva Kupervaser in the Argentine province of Corrientes on February 15, 2021 (top) and July 7, 2020 (bottom).

Photos mostly taken by Vale Silva Kupervaser, in the Argentine province of Corrientes, between 2018 and 2020.

‘The fish are dying’

Alejandro Aguirre lives in Resistencia, a town on the banks of the Paraná River, in the Argentine province of Chaco.

There has been a notable decrease in water levels in the last two years. In the town of Corrientes, this allowed people to discover a tunnel, which was not visible when the water was higher. [Editor’s note: According to a historian, the tunnel served to drain the city’s rainwater in the 1920s and 30s].

As water levels decreased, people discovered a tunnel in Corrientes, a town located on the Paraná River, opposite Resistencia. The blue line in the image on the left shows the water levels in the past, which covered the tunnel entrance. © Alejandro Aguirre

The most worrying aspect of the drop in water levels is the impact on fauna. Fish die when they are, for example, trapped in pools of water that gradually dry out in puddles.

These photos of dead fish were taken by Alejandro Aguirre near Resistencia, in the Argentine province of Chaco in mid-August 2021.

But this situation has also had an impact on people. For example, people who live in the nearby Barrio San Pedro Pescador earn their living by fishing with nets. But recently, the government banned them from fishing because some of the fish species are endangered, although they later reached an agreement that allows locals to fish in certain places. So fishermen have been directly affected by this.

There are also boats stuck in the sand. People cannot go fishing for sport, which has an impact on tourism.

The downspout of the Paraná River (absurdly absent from the hegemonic media agenda) and some of its consequences:

Artisanal fishing cooperatives organized in the @UTEPoficial denounce a severe crisis in the activity and ask for state support. # Catch pic.twitter.com/nuM388j32X

– Diego Pietrafesa (@diegopietrafesa) August 11, 2021

This August 11 photo shows a small fisherman selling fish at low prices in the Plaza del Congreso in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, as he asks for support amid the crisis in his sector due to the drought.

This image shows boats belonging to the Villa Constitución yacht club in the Argentine province of Santa Fe sitting on the mainland. Diego Soreira captured this image with a drone in early August.

The falling water level has affected the economy in other ways as well. In normal times, 80 percent of Argentina’s agricultural exports were transported by this river. Ships now have to carry lighter loads to avoid getting stuck in shallow water, making each trip more expensive. The agricultural sector of Rosario (located in the province of Santa Fe) already lost $ 315 million between March and June, according to the Rosario Stock Exchange. In addition, ships can no longer access the Barranqueras port in Chaco, according to the president of Argentina’s Federal Council of Water Resources.

The drop in water levels has also had an impact on the transport of goods. Photo taken on July 24, 2021. © Instagram / yaninaruizdiaz_rd.

There is also another emerging problem. Producing good quality drinking water, which is treated after being drawn from the river, may become increasingly problematic in the coming months. Our team spoke with someone who lives in the town of Paraná, located in the province of Entre Ríos, who said that some towns were already cutting off water service at certain times of the day.

Photos taken in Paraná, Entre Ríos province, in January 2016 (left) and June 2020 (right) © Cesar Machado ‘The fact that the mouth of the river is turning into pasture is directly linked to human activity’

Lucas Micheloud is a lawyer specialized in environmental issues. He lives in Rosario, in the Argentine province of Santa Fe. He is a member of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers.

The fact that the mouth of the river becomes grassland is directly related to human activities in Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina. There is deforestation, forest fires … in 2020 alone, more than a million hectares of forests were burned in Argentina. The land is also being devastated by monoculture, intensive agriculture and construction projects. So there has been a transformation in the use of the land. If the forest decreases, then there is less water flowing into the rivers and less rain overall. [Editor’s note: There has also been a noticeable decrease in rainfall recently in Brazil.]

The current situation is also a consequence of dredging [Editor’s note: Other specialists also blame the construction of infrastructure including bridges and dams].

The drought is also exacerbated by global warming.

Since last year, the Argentine parliament has been discussing a bill that would allow the protection of wetlands, which account for almost a quarter of all land in Argentina. But there is strong opposition to the bill, led by the mining and agricultural sectors … Also, even if the drought we are seeing now is regional, we need a global response.

On July 26, the Argentine government declared a state of “water emergency” for 180 days in the provinces through which the Paraná passes.

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