Extreme weather events: a new challenge to the Amazon
Extreme flooding and droughts are the consequences of the combination of a series of factors that include climate phenomena, changes in land use patterns, the conversion of ecosystems and deforestation. Even though it is not possible to identify direct one-to-one cause and effect relations for each drastic climate event, it is widely recognised that that they are among the consequences of climate change, as witness the conclusions of innumerable studies and analyses conducted by the IPCC and other bodies.
“Furthermore, the more we alter ecosystems and carry out deforestation in the Amazon the less we will be able to resist such events because we are diminishing our resilience and increasing the possibility of the events becoming catastrophic”, explained Claudio Maretti, leader of the Living Amazon Global Initiative.
Two of Brazil’s Amazonian states have been cut off by the rising waters. At the end of February, the state of Acre declared a state of emergency because of the extraordinarily high water levels in the region’s rivers. The River Acre which runs through the state capital city, Rio Branco, reached a height of 16.6 metres above its normal level on March 11 and inundated various city neighbourhoods. In turn, the level of the Madeira River has cut off the state’s road communication with the rest of Brazil because stretches of the BR-364 Federal Highway that links Acre to Rondonia have been interdicted. Commercial Aircraft and Aircraft of the Brazilian Air Force have been flying in food supplies and medicines for the isolated populations and other supplies are being imported from Peru.
In the Brazilian state of Rondonia, it is estimated that over 20 thousand people have been hit by the floods especially in the state capital Porto Velho, and in 15 surrounding districts, as well as the cities of Guajará-mirim and Nova Mamoré. On March 24, the river reached the record height of 19.52 metres. The previous record was in 1997 when the river rose to 17.52 metres higher than its normal level.
The high water levels in the Madeira River have led to significant flooding in the Bolivian Department of Beni and surrounding areas, affecting thousands of people. The severity of the flooding has led Bolivian people to question whether the flooding is due to the construction or operation of the two dams, Jirau and Santo Antonio constructed on the river in Brazilian territory. So far, there is no conclusive evidence or study result to prove that the dams have been the cause of the massive flooding in Brazilian and Bolivian Amazonian areas in these first few months of 2014.
However, the extreme events clearly demonstrate the need for more caution in interventions in the Amazon, including more in-depth studies of climate change and ecological equilibrium, and the cumulative impacts of infrastructure on river flows and connectivity, on aquatic biodiversity, on fishery resources and on the ecosystems’ capacities to adapt to the drastic alterations imposed on them by human activities.
“In the same way that infrastructure projects interfere in the aquatic environments, the occupation of the land and use of natural resources in the Amazon need to receive more attention not only because they increase the vulnerability of Amazonian regions with potentially catastrophic consequences for their societies and economies, but also because of the extensive deforestation they provoke in these two countries, Brazil and Bolivia, and in other Amazonian countries, thereby contributing to intensifying climate change in the world at large”, declared Maretti
Apart from direct interventions – in a single river basin for example – it is important to consider that the Amazon is a vast and sensitive biome that functions as if it were a single ecological entity, where any actions carried out in one part affect the natural cycles of the others and, furthermore, the ecosystems do not recognise man-made frontiers. That is why there must be strong regional integration and cooperation among the countries especially in areas like the implementation of infrastructure that interferes with water courses and deforestation
By means of its Living Amazon Global Initiative, WWF has developed an ecological vision that embraces the regional dimension and the biome as a whole. Planning and decision making processes associated to interventions in the Amazon must take into account the need to maintain the ecological equilibrium of the biome, which, in turn, will contribute towards regulating the global climate.
In WWF’s view, it is essential that governments should consider nature conservation and the services provided by terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems as allies in the solution (mitigation and adaptation of climate change problems) and integrate them to their plans as economic activities contributing towards sustainable development.
(With information from Agência Brasil, Agência de Notícias do Acre, Jornal Los Tiempos)