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

People walk in the bed of the Paraná River, between Argentina and Paraguay at Caraguatay Island, in this screenshot of a video released on August 8, 2021.
People walk in the bed of the Paraná River, between Argentina and Paraguay at Caraguatay Island, in this screenshot of a video released on August 8, 2021. © Twitter

A video showing people walking across the riverbed of 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 on the environment and the local economy. This crisis is the result of a historic drought linked to human activities.

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This video posted online in early August shows people walking across a dry riverbed. The woman filming the video says, “We are walking across the riverbed of the Paraná River. It’s really sad [...]. Look, there’s Paraguay, across the way... Caraguatay Island... Look at the water that is left... The Argentinian coast that we are walking on...”

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

The Paraná, which stretches over 5,000 kilometres, is the second-longest river in South America, after the Amazon. It begins in Brazil, then runs across Paraguay towards Argentina, where it finally ends in the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Paraná River and its tributaries.
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 isn’t the first video documenting the decreasing water levels – many other videos showing the river running dry in different locations have also been posted online since the levels began dropping two years ago. According to Argentina’s National Water Institute, the Paraná has reached its lowest levels since 1944. And it is very possible it could plunge to new lows in the coming months.  

This video, like the first one, 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 (above) and July 7, 2020 (below). 

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’s been a notable decrease in the water levels over the past two years. In the village of Corrientes, this actually allowed people to discover a tunnel, which wasn’t 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, across from Resistencia. The blue line in the image on the left shows water levels in the past, which covered the tunnel entrance.
As water levels decreased, people discovered a tunnel in Corrientes, a town located on the Paraná River, across from Resistencia. The blue line in the image on the left shows water levels in the past, which covered the tunnel entrance. © Photos sent by Alejandro Aguirre.

The most worrying aspect of the decreasing water levels is the impact on the fauna. Fish are dying when they find themselves, for example, trapped in pools of water that dry up little by little into 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 living in nearby Barrio San Pedro Pescador make a living from fishing with nets. But recently, the government banned them from fishing because some of the species of fish are endangered –although they later reached an agreement allowing locals to fish in certain locations. So fishermen have been directly impacted by this.

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

This photo from August 11 shows a small-scale fisherman selling fish for low prices at Congressional Plaza in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, while asking for support amid the crisis in his sector due to the drought. 

This image shows boats belonging to the Villa Constitución nautical club in the Argentine province of Santa Fe sitting on dry land. Diego Soreira captured this image using a drone in early August.

The falling water levels have also impacted the economy in other ways. In normal times, 80 percent of Argentina’s agricultural exports were transported down this river. Now, the boats have to carry lighter loads to avoid getting stuck in shallow water, making each trip more expensive. The agricultural sector in Rosario (located in Santa Fe province) has already lost $315 million between March and June, according to the Rosario Stock Exchange. Moreover, boats can no longer access Barranqueras Port in Chaco, according to the president of the Argentine Federal Water Resources Council

The decline in water levels has also had an impact on the transportation of goods. Photo published on July 24, 2021.
The decline in water levels has also had an impact on the transportation of goods. Photo published on July 24, 2021. © Instagram/yaninaruizdiaz_rd.

There’s also another emerging problem. Producing good drinking water – which is treated after being extracted from the river – may be increasingly problematic over the coming months. Our team spoke to someone living in the town of Paraná, located in Entre Ríos province, who said that some towns had already cut off water services, on several occasions. 

Photos taken in Paraná, in Entre Ríos province, in January 2016 (left) and June 2020 (right)
Photos taken in Paraná, in Entre Ríos province, in January 2016 (left) and June 2020 (right) © Cesar Machado

'The fact that the mouth of the river is turning into grassland is directly linked to human activities'

Lucas Micheloud is a lawyer who specialises in environmental issues. He lives in Rosario, in Argentina’s Santa Fe province. He is a member of the Argentine Association of Lawyers for the Environment.

The fact that the mouth of the river is turning into grassland is directly linked to human activities in Brazil, Paraguay and in northern Argentina.

There is deforestation going on, forest fires… In 2020 alone, more than a million hectares of forest land burned in Argentina. Then, the land is being ravaged by monoculture, intensive farming and building projects. So there has been a transformation in land use. If the forest decreases, then there is less water flowing into rivers and less rain in general. [Editor’s note: There has been a noticeable decrease in rainfall recently in Brazil.] 

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

The drought is also made worse by global warming. 

Since last year, the Argentine parliament has been discussing a bill that would allow for the protection of wetlands, which represent nearly a quarter of all land in Argentina. But there is stiff opposition to the bill, led by the mining and agricultural sectors… Moreover, even if the drought we're 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 that the Paraná runs through.