Forest fires have raged for months across Argentina’s delta wetland, threatening a major ecosystem with total destruction, experts warn.
Severe drought led to the Paraná River shriveling to its lowest level in decades, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. As the shrinking river has caused economic damage — grounding several ships and forcing companies to reduce cargo loads in order to navigate the shallower depths — it also has allowed increased fire activity in the delta.
Fires have raged for months now, with infernos visible from miles away, the Guardian reported.
“Everything is burning, it’s completely out of control,” Leonel Mingo, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Argentina, told the Guardian. “Once a fire reaches that scale, it becomes virtually impossible to stop.”
Columns of smoke have risen from the jungle since February, covering the streets of nearby Rosario and other places along the river with ash. The air has become unbreathable for weeks at a time, according to the Guardian.
Prolonged drought in southern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina dropped the Paraná River to its lowest water levels in decades, according to Earth Observatory. Usually, water managers can prevent low water levels by releasing water from reservoirs during dry periods — but water levels have reached their lowest point in decades.
“This low water level was the worst in the past 49 years, much lower levels were frequent before the 1970s,” according to Andrés Antico, a climatologist with Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
Although cattle ranchers, illegal hunters and property developers have encroached on its rich habitat, the Paraná Delta still teems with diverse wildlife, all facing a dire challenge to their survival.
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The coronavirus pandemic has added to the problems, making it impossible for experts to travel to the affected areas. But it has not thwarted cattle ranchers, driven from more productive lands by the growth of soya bean plantations, from sending their cattle to graze on the constantly shifting delta islands.
“The delta has always been used by livestock farmers to graze their cattle, but the number of cattle grew 500 percent between 2000 and 2010,” Laura Prol, an ecologist from the NGA Taller Ecologist, told the Guardian. “Although that number has dropped some in the last decade, ranchers continue burning the dead winter grass as if they were still in the 19th century, the idea being for the new grass beneath to sprout stronger.”
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While the Paraná River Basin received some rain in June and July, river watchers do not expect the river to make a full recovery until sustained wet season rains arrive in October.