Sunday, December 13, 2009

Death in Manaquiri: A time bomb in the Amazon

While the world’s leaders haggle and prevaricate in Copenhagen, real and devastating climate change is happening in many countries across the world. The third world is bearing the brunt of the problem and the story of Manaquiri, in Brazil’s Amazon Basin is a microcosm of a much larger problem. Producing one fifth of the world’s oxygen, a quarter of the world's fresh water and home to the world’s largest rainforest, the Basin is often described as “The Lungs of the World”. But these lungs are now struggling to breathe as the region is crippled with the worst drought since records began. (photo: Reuters)

Manaquiri is a small sleepy town in the Brazilian State of Amazonas. It is not on the highway, but the state capital Manaus is a short trip three hours downstream where the Parana de Manaquiri River eventually flows into the mighty Amazon. The river that shares the name of the town is the area’s lifeblood. 800 of the town’s population of almost 20,000 are fishermen. And 14,000 people rely on the river as an economic lifeline. All are suffering as the river loses its grip on life.

Manaquiri is the centre of a drought that has last a month. It has not rained in 25 days which does not sound like much but it rarely happened before recent times in this lush rainforest region. The length of time without rain is enough to have a devastating effect on the local river. All the tributaries that supply water to the Manaquiri have choked up and have deprived the water of oxygen. As a result, the drought is killing tonnes of fish. Their rotting bodies are polluting the water and leaving thousands of people with no clean water.

Al Jazeera quoted a local scientist who says the problem is directly attributable to climate change. Philip Fearnside is a research professor in the Department of Ecology at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus. Fearnside has lived in the Amazon for 33 years and he says the drying up of the Manaquiri may signal similar droughts occurring with higher frequency as the climate continues to change. "[Climate change] is something we have experience with and know from the data, it's not something that depends on the outcome of a computer simulation," he said.

A photo essay on the site shows the extent of the devastation in Manaquiri. Boats are stranded in dry lakes and whole lagoons have evaporated. The parched conditions have triggered forest fires killing off fish and crops. As the waters receded, many people were trapped in their home without access to food or medical treatment.

The current drought is happening just four years after Manaquiri suffered “its worst drought in 40 years”. The 2005 drought lasted for over two months and local officials were forced to close 40 schools and cancel the school year because of a lack of food, transport and potable water. Cases of diarrhoea rose in the region as wells became poisoned and stagnant water caused a rise in malaria. One local, 39 year old Manuel Tavares Silva was quoted at the time saying "I've never seen anything like this."

But now Silva is seeing it again. Manaquiri is a microcosm of a wider problem. The New York Times noted that in mid-October, the governor of Amazonas State, Eduardo Braga, decreed a "state of public calamity” which remains in effect two months later. Many boats cannot reach Manaus as the river level in Amazonian tributaries drop to near zero. The drought also affects neighbouring states and other Amazonian Basin countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

Many scientists say the drought is most likely a result of the same rise in water temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean that caused Hurricane Katrina. If global warming is involved as they suspect, it is likely to mean more severe and frequent droughts in the region. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are less circumspect and say the problems in Manaquiri and in the Amazon region are a direct result of deforestation and global warming. "If you compare the rainfall averages over the last five years, you see that there have been growing rain deficits each year," said Manaus-based Greenpeace activist Carlos Rittl about the 2005 drought. "It will be extremely worrying if this becomes a tendency." Whether those meeting in Copenhagen like it or not, that tendency has now arrived.

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