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Amid drought and slews of garbage, the Paraguay River is drying up

. Oct 05, 2020
paraguay river pollution drought Asunción Bay. Photo: Bruno Valenzano/Shutterstock

The 2,695-kilometer long Paraguay River is one of the biggest and most important rivers in all of South America. Winding through four countries, it is a key part of regional economies and tourism in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. 

But this historic river is beginning to dry up.

Thanks to a prolonged drought that has aggravated the wave of forest fires throughout the Pantanal wetlands region, the Paraguay River has hit its lowest water level since 1969.

</p> <p>In response, the Paraguayan government declared a state of &#8220;hydrological emergency,&#8221; calling on the country&#8217;s state-owned sanitation company to put together a task force to avoid water and energy shortages. The low levels of the river could cut output of hydroelectric dams in the region by half.</p> <p>An investigation into the drying river showed that drought is not the only factor to blame: the river bed is plagued by an enormous amount of garbage. On an average <a href="https://g1.globo.com/mt/mato-grosso/noticia/2018/10/15/seis-toneladas-de-lixo-sao-retiradas-do-rio-paraguai-e-expostos-em-praca-de-caceres-mt.ghtml">waste-collection operation</a> in the Paraguay River and its tributaries, over 1,000 tons of garbage are often removed.</p> <p>In the town of San Antonio, just south of Paraguayan capital Asunción, the river banks are littered with tires, half buried in the sand below.</p> <p>The damage to the river is not just an environmental issue, as over 80 percent of Paraguay&#8217;s foreign trade is dependent on river transportation. Of all the meat, grain, agricultural, and forestry commodities exported by the country, 65 percent relies on ships travelling up and down the Paraguay River.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Paraná-Paraguay waterway, among the largest in the world, starts in the town of Puerto Cáceres, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, and flows all the way down to the Uruguayan city of Nueva Palmira. In Brazil alone, this complex is responsible for the transportation of at least 56 million tons of products each year. When taking all five countries into account, this total jumps to 184 million tons, according to Brazil&#8217;s National Waterway Transport Agency (Antaq).&nbsp;</p> <p>In light of the risks to transport with falling water levels, Paraguay&#8217;s Public Works Ministry announced a dredging project, consisting of excavating the riverbed to increase the draft by the end of 2022. The project is valued at PYG 105 billion (USD 1.8 million).</p> <h2>Looking to the future</h2> <p>According to the Paraguayan Center for Fluvial and Maritime Shipowners (Cafym), the current situation of the river is “discouraging,” with analysis indicating that low levels will persist over the next five years. Furthermore, if rainfall is sparse at the end of the year, oppressively high temperatures in the region could lead to all-time negative records in the river&#8217;s water levels. On Friday, temperatures hit 44 degrees Celsius in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.&nbsp;</p> <p>With a projected GDP growth of -1 percent in 2020 and more than 80,000 jobs lost during the pandemic — predominantly in border regions — Paraguay will be hoping to avoid environmental setbacks which could result in further economic hardship.&nbsp;</p> <p>Indeed, the member nations of Mercosur — the trade bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay — are being put under the microscope when it comes to sustainability and climate change issues, as a result of the group&#8217;s historic trade deal with the European Union.</p> <p>Brazil has already caused the bloc problems, <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/09/19/austria-veto-eu-trade-agreement-mercosur/">angering European Union members</a> with the government&#8217;s laissez-faire attitude toward deforestation. The situation in the Paraguay River and surrounding ecosystems is unlikely to help matters.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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