All dead: How the record drought ravaged the Amazon

Places called Curralinho in Brazil For the communities on the island of Maraj in Brazil, the flow of the Canaticu River marks the changing of the seasons.

During the rainy months, the river is several meters deep, flowing under the wooden houses that rise from its shores on stilts. Residents rely on its water for drinking, cooking and washing.

But when summer came, the river was reduced to a stream. However, its flow is usually enough for the locals to meet their daily needs.

This year, however, a severe drought has engulfed large parts of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. All that remains in the Canaticu River in some places is a dark brown drop, full of bacteria and almost completely dried up.

Now we can’t use it for anything. It’s not like it used to be, said 36-year-old Elizete Lima Nascimento, who has lived in one of the riverside communities, Serafina, for the past decade.

The dry conditions have sparked a crisis in towns like Serafina that could change their way of life for generations to come.

The residents of the Serafina community use the river water for washing and even drinking [Apolline Guillerot-Malick/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of thousands of people depend on the rivers and streams of the Amazon for food, transportation and income.

But historically low water levels have forced residents to re-imagine their relationship with nature. One tributary, the Rio Negro, has dropped to levels not seen in 121 years.

We are completely dependent on nature, Maria Vanessa Tavares de Souza, a 36-year-old teacher who lives in Serafina, said in a community meeting to discuss the problems caused by the drought.

Now that climate change is out of balance with everything, it will be difficult for us to survive here.

Already, one of the residents’ main source of food is threatened: fish. Some were left trapped as the river receded and in the water that remained, the carcasses of other fish floated to the surface.

Abnormally warm temperatures are suspected of mass die-off. Residents fear the dead fish will contaminate the water as they decompose.

Nine heatwaves have hit Brazil since the start of the year, with the heat index in Rio de Janeiro rising to nearly 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) in November. Globally, 2023 is expected to be the hottest year on record.

Residents sit on a wooden deck area, some holding small children.  The lushness of the Amazon rainforest can be seen beyond the deck.
At the Serafinas community hall, residents gathered to discuss the problems brought about by the drought [Apolline Guillerot-Malick/Al Jazeera]

Scientists blame climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, for rising temperatures and extreme weather conditions.

In these years El Nio is a climate phenomenon that warms the surface waters of the equatorial Pacific region more intensely, contributing to the Amazon drought.

But the trend toward dry weather has been a long time coming. A series of harsh summers has already led many Serafina residents to dig wells in their yards to access groundwater, instead of relying on the river.

Others called for the installation of a drinking water distribution system, a major infrastructure project consisting of pipes and storage facilities. They argue that the wells are unreliable and cannot stand for a long-term solution.

Still, well owners like Nascimento say their homemade water systems are essential to withstand the drought.

The well is extremely important. We use its water for everything from drinking, cooking, making aai, washing ourselves and our clothes, he said, as he lifted the wooden planks of his garden to reveal the six-meter deep hole.

Not every family has a well, however, so residents who have one share their water supplies with neighbors. Paula Lima, 43, brings more than 50 liters (13 gallons) every day from the well at her cousins’ house on the other side of the community, just to meet her family’s needs.

The trips contributed to Limas back problems. But he had no choice. Drinking water in rivers when its level is very low can cause vomiting and diarrhea if not worse.

A woman leans over to lift wooden planks from the top of a well in the Amazon rainforest.
Many Serafina households now use wells for drinking water, especially when the river water is too muddy to drink. [Apolline Guillerot-Malick/Al Jazeera]

Eleniuda Costa Paiva de Souza, a 30-year-old nurse, recently had to take her two-year-old daughter to the nearest hospital on a trip that required walking through the jungle, then traveling five more hours by boat. His son got sick after eating mud from the river.

De Souza said he wants to leave the community soon. Life here only gets worse. In town, things will be easier, he explained.

Isolation is part of life in river communities: Serafina hugs a serpentine river bend, surrounded by rainforest as far as the eye can see. But the weak current of the Canaticu River makes Serafina even more isolated.

To stock up on supplies, locals often use the river to travel to nearby towns. But because of the very shallow water, residents are forced to maneuver their small wooden boats at a snail’s pace to avoid logs and exposed roots.

Many are concerned that, in the event of a medical emergency, it would take too long to get to the nearest town.

Downriver, at the mouth of the Canaticu, the town of Curralinho is facing its own struggles amid a severe drought.

Located on the southern coast of Maraj, the town and its population of around 34,000 saw fires destroy thousands of hectares of nearby rainforest in November.

Curralinho is not alone in fighting the raging fire. In the first two weeks of October, more than 2,900 fires broke out in the state of Amazonas, a record number.

The smoke was so thick that it choked the regions of the largest city, Manaus, complicating navigation and the delivery of important supplies.

Criminal enterprises are also taking advantage of the dry conditions to clear the rainforest by fire, as part of land grabbing schemes.

Two firefighters walk through a burned rice field, where scorched palm trees are the only vegetation left on the ground.
In the countryside of Curralinho, firefighters patrol the former aai plantation that was destroyed by fire [Apolline Guillerot-Malick/Al Jazeera]

But in Curralinho, small farmers are mostly responsible for the fires. They use fire as a crop management tool, to remove the residues of previous years’ harvest and neutralize soil acidity.

However, due to the dry conditions, some of the fires were out of control.

The town declared a state of emergency back in September, warning of a higher fire risk during the drought.

Rainfall in the Amazon was below average for at least the previous six months. One of the long-term causes is deforestation: Rainforests absorb and release moisture, which helps create rain cycles. But without the tree trunks, the humidity drops, meaning less rain.

Ten to 15 years ago, these fires were not a problem. The forest used to be very humid, which meant that the flames could not spread, said Ezaquiel Pereira, who works in the environment department of Curralinhos.

Land preparation machinery for planting can prevent farmers from starting fires. But that equipment can cost about $25,000, Pereira added.

For farmers like 65-year-old Maria Terezina Ferreira Sampaio, such costs are out of the question.

A woman in a tank top holds a cassava root taken from the field around her.
The fire and drought caused the 65-year-old farmer Maria Terezina Ferreira Sampaio to lose part of her cassava crop. [Apolline Guillerot-Malick/Al Jazeera]

Sampaio lives outside Curralinho with her husband in a small, bare wooden house where she has bought five children. The couple relied on selling crops to supplement their retirement incomes, allowing them to buy food, medicine and clothing.

This year, the drought destroyed their orange, coconut, lemon and banana trees and prevented their cassava plants from growing to edible size.

I cried and cried. After so much sacrifice Sampaios’ words stopped, as he looked in despair at the dry land, the dry leaves crunching under his feet.

Despite their best efforts, hundreds of people have lost their crops due to the lack of rain, said Curralinhos environmental secretary Esmael Lopes.

On a regional scale, the worst of the drought may yet be ahead, as El Nio tends to intensify in December before ending in April or May.

In Curralinho, this month’s heavy rains are encouraging and offer hope of relief from the summer. But even if the wet season comes now, it will be too late, Sampaio said.

We should be harvesting. However, everyone is dead, he said.

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