The historic drought of the Paraguay River threatens the country’s economy

The country’s sign of identity and an important source of wealth, it is at historic lows. Low flow makes it difficult for commercial ships to navigate in a country that relies on the river for transportation.

Captain Roberto González has been sailing for 25 years, but he had never seen anything like it: an agglomeration of “red lanterns” shining at night on the Paraguay River.

From his barge, he recommends his crew to be very careful when going down to place the moorings. Those shining eyes are of crocodiles that took over the riverbanks.

“Before, little or nothing was observed. Now, surely their places have dried up and there is an impressive amount ”, this experienced captain tells BBC Mundo.

When it says “before”, it refers to the time before this river experienced a historical drop in its flow, which is at its lowest level in 51 years, due to the severe drought in the region.

The Paraguay River is the hallmark and , together with the Paraná, the main artery of this landlocked country.

This great waterway originates in Brazil, runs briefly through Bolivia, crosses Paraguay and empties into the Paraná, which in turn empties into the Atlantic Ocean through the Río de la Plata.

“For us, the Paraguay River is the only highway we have to go out to sea and this highway is in trouble,” Pedro Mancuello, Paraguay’s Vice Minister of Commerce, tells BBC Mundo.

The drought has also caused serious fires in Paraguay.

The urgent lack of rainfall in recent months in the Brazilian Pantanal, Paraguay’s source of food, has the river at historic lows, centimeters below its hydrometric zero (the standard for measuring its flow, located at the port of Asunción, measured last Thursday).

At certain points, the river is no longer deep enough for larger commercial vessels carrying grain, fuel or iron ore to navigate.

“In the Paraná basin there were rains, but the situation of the Paraguay River is absolutely critical,” Esteban dos Santos, president of the Center of Fluvial and Maritime Shipowners of Paraguay, tells BBC Mundo.

“The depth drops at a rate of three centimeters per day .”

Both he and the government foresee that in a few days or weeks, if everything continues as before – the rains in recent days have not been enough – the ships will have to stay in port.

Map of the two rivers.

“If a solution is not found and this situation continues, navigation will be practically impossible, we estimate, in a month and something”, acknowledges Jorge Vergara, director of the Director of Strategic Projects of the Ministry of Public Works and Communications.

The consequences for the economy of the country, the one that had best withstood the blow of the pandemic in the entire American continent according to recent data from Bloomberg, can be dire.

According to figures from the Ministry of Commerce consulted by BBC Mundo, in 2019 52% of imports (the main partner is China) and 73% of exports of tangible products moved by river.

Paraguay is one of the world’s leading exporters of agricultural products, including soybeans, and has one of the largest river fleets.

Through the waters of its eponymous river, it travels from iron ore mined in Brazil to containers with imports from China.

Extreme events become more frequent with climate change.

Boats in port

Due to the insufficient flow, there are currently ships that are no longer leaving, they do so with less load than usual ( up to 60% ), or they must stop at the port of Pilar, from where they continue transporting by land .

It is more than 350 kilometers to Asunción, instead of the normal route along the river to the port center of Villeta, a few kilometers from the capital.

This increases costs, since river transport is the cheapest.

Guillermo Ehreke, director of a shipping company, says that more than twenty of the 80 ships that they regularly move cannot go sailing .

“We have eight barges in Bolivia, three in San Antonio (Paraguay) and 12 in San Lorenzo (Argentina). Technically they are not stranded, but they are unable to navigate due to lack of water, “he says.

“They have been unemployed for three months. First it was because of [the] coronavirus crisis, which drastically lowered fuel consumption. And then, when they were going to leave, they were stranded. “

Paraguay has one of the largest river fleets in the world.

The entrepreneur estimates that his company is losing between three and four million dollars a month in turnover.

One person who has experienced the problem first-hand is Captain Nelson Samudio, who is now “on the ground”, but until last week was on board.

“We brought 12 empty barges from San Nicolás, in Argentina, to load iron ore in the Ladario mines (Brazil). But we had to stop in San Antonio (Paraguay), because the draft is very limited and we couldn’t get there anymore ”, he says.

The distance between the two points by land is about 1,000 kilometers .

The impact to date for the Paraguayan private sector is $ 250 million, according to figures from the Center for Fluvial and Maritime Shipowners.

To get out of this situation, the river needs dredging operations at its most critical points.

The government is bidding for emergency dredging activities worth $ 21 million dollars and the use of the funds, which has already been approved by the Chamber of Deputies, has to be approved by the Senate.

According to Vergara, the dredging was already planned, but the funds allocated to it had to be derived to attend the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, he estimates that companies will be able to start working in two months, but until then he foresees “very complex weeks.”

“The most serious thing would be to be short of fuel, but also the extra cost in all consumer goods”, summarizes Dos Santos.

Beyond the emergency solution, the river needs continuous maintenance between the point where it joins the Paraná river and the city of Concepción, says Roberto Salinas, president of the Paraguayan Logistics Association.

Farmers and indigenous peoples demonstrated to ask the government to cancel their debts.

The cost of keeping it navigable at 11 feet, which is about ten feet deep, would be about $ 150 million, he says.

The situation in Paraná, also affected by the drought, is not good either, but its critical steps began to be dredged in January.

“Although they are two different rivers, we cannot compare them since the Paraná is more abundant and has more critical points […] and that is why the Government foresaw these works,” the delegate of the Paraguayan Mixed Commission told the IP agency. Argentina of the Paraná River, Martín González.

According to González, “with these dredging we have managed to improve the levels of navigation of the river considering that we are going through historical tracks”.

Chronic lack of water

The causes of the historically low level of the river must be sought in the drought that has hit the country since last March and in the La Niña meteorological phenomenon that has been affecting Paraguay since September, explains Raúl Enrique Rodas to BBC Mundo , Director of Meteorology and Hydrology of the government.

The drought also sparked such a devastating wave of fires that Parliament earlier this month declared a state of national emergency throughout the country.

The lack of water is, however, a chronic problem in the country.

To give it an at least partial solution and after several years of planning and execution, the government this year inaugurated a large project to bring water to the Chaco region, which has serious supply problems.

Dry river
The river needs to be dredged so that navigation can be maintained.

The well-known Chaco Aqueduct is a conduit that carries water from the Paraguay River to the height of Puerto Casado, about 650 kilometers from Asunción, along about 200 kilometers to Central Chaco, from where it is distributed to the Mennonite colonies and some 84 indigenous villages.

A few weeks ago, however, it was out of service, as almost no water entered the river’s intake area.

Basic supplies

In addition to the lack of water, the river is vital for many communities to have access to basic supplies.

To Bahía Negra, a riverside town separated from Brazil only by the river, supplies arrive only once a week by boat.

The boat that transports them leaves the city of Concepción, nicknamed “the Pearl of the North”, and reaches Bahía Negra after stopping at various ports.

The locals then go up to do the shopping in what is a true floating market, the only one where they can access fruit and vegetables, since the soil in this area is not suitable for cultivation.

There are boats that have been stranded in different parts of the river.

Due to the current lack of flow, “last Friday the ship was stranded and arrived late,” Saúl Arias, who works on environmental education projects for the Eco Pantanal association, tells BBC Mundo.

The river is the cheapest and safest option for bringing supplies to the community, Arias says, and if the boat cannot get there, the only alternative is a dirt road.

That’s all this is not surprising that Pedro Mancuello, Vice Minister of Commerce of Paraguay, mentioned repeatedly in conversation with BBC World , the relationship between the climate, nature and the economy .

“We have to reconcile our production and consumption development with caring for the environment,” says Mancuello.

“Nature is sending us signals.”

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