From: Paulo Winterstein, Associated Press
Published November 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Amazon Drought Relief Efforts Alleviate Danger, but Damage Could Be Long-Lasting

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Relief efforts have eased the immediate anguish of the Amazon's worst drought in decades, but the damage done to the region's economy and health could linger for years, officials said Thursday.


The drought is subsiding in the jungle state of Amazonas, where relief workers delivered more than one million tons (0.91 million metric tons) of food and medicine to some 300,000 people left stranded when waterways vital to transportation dried up, the state government's news service, Agecom, reported last week.


River levels are rising more than 20 centimeters (8 inches) a day and have already revived river traffic in the major port city of Manaus, 1,663 miles (2,682 kilometers) northwest of Sao Paulo, according to the Brazilian government's geological service.


But rivers in the eastern Amazon, downriver from Manaus, are still shrinking. And the government meteorological agency has forecast that November will be this year's driest and hottest month.


The government in Para state has declared a state of emergency in 13 cities because of a lack of food and drinking water. Anticipating that the drought in Para could last until December, state authorities on Thursday began distributing food and digging wells, the state's news agency reported.


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"We were looking at a disastrous picture, but the situation is practically under control -- that is, no one is starving or without water," the head of the well-digging operation in Para, Col. Orlando Frade, said in a statement Monday.


The Amazon rain forest is the world's largest wilderness. It sprawls over 4 million sq. kilometers (1.5 million sq. miles) in Brazil alone, covering more than half the nation's territory, and is home to more than 11 million people.


But while food and supplies are reaching isolated communities -- often by helicopter -- residents throughout the Amazon jungle who rely on the river to take their goods to market continue to suffer.


Smaller Amazon River tributaries are almost completely dry, and likely won't begin to fill up for another three weeks, said Jair Souto, the mayor of Manaquiri, one of the cities hardest hit by the drought. And when these rivers fill again, tall grasses that have grown in the dry beds will turn the rivers into marshes and make water travel nearly impossible, he said.


The drought also destroyed a large portion of the city's annual harvest of watermelons and peppers, eliminating the primary source of income for more than 2,000 families, Souto said.


Many of the cattle that residents relied on as a cash reserve -- easily sold and a source of quick money -- also have been killed by the drought, and Souto said that recouping the loss could take years.


Fishing was another source of income and food that was virtually wiped out by the shrinking rivers.


"The quantity of fish lost in the state of Amazonas because of the drought is incalculable," Gov. Eduardo Braga said in a statement. "The consequences of this ecological disaster will only be known when the phenomenon is over."


Some estimate that it could take at least four years for fish populations to return to normal. For now, the state government has promised more than $500,000 (euro415,248) in loans and technical assistance to set up fish farms.


The huge numbers of fish that died in the drought also have contaminated the water, and health officials now worry that rising rivers will spread the dirty water, which can lead to outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and malaria.


The grass that has sprouted in the riverbed also can spread bacteria and viruses after it decomposes, Amazonas Secretary of Health Wilson Alecrim told the state news agency.


At least six people in the Amazon have died from drinking contaminated water.


The drought has caused at least one unexpected ecological imbalance. Carnivorous ants have proliferated in the dry river beds of the far western jungles, and when the water levels begin to rise, river-dwellers fear these ants will invade their homes, the Manaus daily newspaper A Critica reported.


The rainy season is expected to start in earnest in January, but many think it will take some time for the region to recover.


"The hardship will last long after the drought," Manaquiri mayor Souto said.


Source: Associated Press


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