“When you have one bad year, you can face it,” Koci said. Some of his 20,000 acres rest near the mighty Paraná River, where water levels have reached lows not seen since 1944. On the back of two years of drought-related crop losses, he said, the continuing dryness is now set to reduce his sunflower yields this year by 65 percent.
“When you have three bad years, you don’t know if there will even be another year,” he said.
From the frigid peaks of Patagonia to the tropical wetlands of Brazil, worsening droughts this year are slamming farmers, shutting down ski slopes, upending transit and spiking prices for everything from coffee to electricity.
So low are levels of the Paraná running through Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina that some ranchers are herding cattle across dried-up riverbeds typically lined with cargo-toting barges. Raging wildfires in Paraguay have brought acrid smoke to the limits of the capital. Earlier this year, the rushing cascades of Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine frontier reduced to a relative drip.
The droughts this year are extensions of multiyear water shortages, with causes that vary from country to country. Yet for much of the region, the droughts are moving up the calendar on climate change — offering a taste of the challenges ahead in securing an increasingly precious commodity: water.
“It’s an escalating problem, and the fact that we’re seeing more and more of these events, and more extreme events, is not a coincidence,” said Lisa Viscidi, energy and climate expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “It’s definitely because we’re seeing the effects of climate change.”
The region is one of many across the globe being struck by severe drought. Hot spots severe enough to cause widespread crop losses, water shortages and elevated fire risk are now present in every continent outside Antarctica. Farmers in Arizona are curbing water use amid a catastrophic decline of the Colorado River. California melons are withering on their vines. The drought in Madagascar is being partly blamed for what the United Nations is calling the world’s first climate famine.
Such disasters, scientists say, will worsen as the planet warms. The latest climate assessment from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that one-third of global land areas will suffer from at least moderate drought by the end of the century.
For South America, that future is coming into view just as some of the economies hit hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to rebound. The impact of the droughts are threatening to soar into the billions of dollars. Across the region, the price of historic dryness is being measured in lost crops, a slowdown in mining, surging transportation costs and shortages of energy in a region heavily dependent on hydropower.
In Chile, a nation caught in the vortex of a 13-year drought, its longest and most severe in 1,000 years, a “blob” of warm water in the southwest Pacific the size of the continental United States is disturbing rain patterns, pushing storm tracks southward over the Drake Passage and Antarctica. Scientists say greenhouse gases have exacerbated the drying trend, putting Chile at the forefront of the region’s water crisis.
“We are one of the regions of the globe where you can see that climate models coincide in their predictions, that by the end of the 21st century, we’ll have on average 30 percent less rainfall than today,” said Duncan Christie, a paleoclimatologist at the Austral University of Chile. “What we’re seeing today is as if the future has already arrived in central Chile.”
The Chilean government has declared an agricultural emergency in 8 of its 16 regions and is offering aid to stricken farmers. Agriculture Minister María Emilia Undurraga said some regions are registering rainfall losses of between 62 and 80 percent.
If conditions do not improve, Chile’s copper mining industry — responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s economic output, and heavily reliant on water for processing — could see a drop in production of between 2.6 and 3.4 percent this year, amounting to losses of up to $1.7 billion, according to Manuel Viera, president of the Chilean Mining Chamber.
“Our economy very much depends on copper, and this is going to have an impact,” Viera said. “Without water, there is no mining.”
Francisco Sotomayor, head of the Chilean Ski Areas Association, said seven of the organization’s 12 lodges opened late or suffered interruptions this year due to a lack of snow — compounding losses for a sector already hit hard by the pandemic.
“Before, we could always speak of having more than three meters of snow accumulated by this date, and now we are under two meters,” Sotomayor said.
Bolivia’s drought is lingering after two brutally dry years that saw millions of acres burned by wildfires. In the department of Oruro, dairy farmer Demetrio Martínez said his family business lost two cows this year from drought after losing a total of six in 2019 and 2020.
“If they don´t get water, they die,” he said. “In the past, we were able to maintain 25 head of cattle. [Because of the drought now] we’re only managing to keep 10 alive.”
Martínez lives roughly 100 miles from Lake Poopó, which was the country’s second-largest lake before it dried up in 2015. It has dried and recovered in the past, but it now resembles a desert, and scientists fear it might stay that way.
Communities in Bolivia’s Tarija department are now depending on water trucks and impromptu groundwater wells to survive. Yenny Noguera Rodríguez, 29, an environmentalist activist, said the water shortage is affecting not only crops, but families who now often need to travel long distances to bathe.
“My family drives an hour to another place where there’s water every two days,” she said. “Some families travel even farther; up to six hours to places where they can do laundry or take a shower. This means some people are showering only one day a week.”
Analysts blame a combination of the La Niña weather pattern, deforestation in the Amazon and climate change for what is shaping up to be the worst drought in nearly a century in parts of Brazil.
Falling water tables are emptying hydroelectric reservoirs in a nation of 211 million that relies on water to power the majority of its energy grid. Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão has warned that the drought could lead to energy rationing.
Brazil’s mines and energy minister, Bento Albuquerque, says hydropower losses now equal five months’ worth of energy consumed by the city of Rio de Janeiro. The ministry announced it would jack up energy prices, with affected consumers paying a new premium of more than 6 percent.
“The rainy season in the South was worse than expected. As a result, the reservoirs of our hydroelectric power plants in the Southeast and Midwest suffered a greater reduction than expected,” Albuquerque said in a televised address last month. He said federal government agencies had been directed to cut electricity consumption by 20 percent.
The drought, combined with frost from unusually cold temperatures, has damaged coffee crops in Brazil, the world’s largest producer and exporter. The result: In July, the price of Arabica beans touched seven-year highs, a spike that will filter into morning mugs globally in the weeks and months ahead.
“Never before have we seen two seasons of Arabica crops being impacted by the drought,” said Judy Ganes, a U.S.-based soft commodities analyst. “It was bad enough to have the drought damage, and now we have the frost damage.”
Here in Argentina, the country is suffering a double blow. The northern and central regions are experiencing the drier weather patterns that are affecting parts of Brazil, even as its Andean regions get hit by the conditions that are robbing moisture from central Chile.
In a country long known as a global breadbasket, where 70 percent of exports are food commodities such as soybeans and corn, the drought is slamming farmers — and the broader economy — just as the country is struggling to emerge from a recession made worse by the pandemic.
The Paraná River — one of the principal trade routes in South America’s Southern Cone, second on the continent only to the Amazon in length and flow — has been reduced in some stretches to a stream. Piers where boats used to berth are now silted up, separated from flowing water by several yards. To avoid being grounded, barges are running with lighter loads, causing transport costs to surge by as much as 25 percent and transit times to triple. The sector is expecting losses this year of $100 million, according to Juan Carlos Muñoz Menna, director of the Paraguayan shipping industry group CAFYM.
Analysts fear the droughts are a harbinger of a new normal, portending consistently lower crop yields in the future. Total cereal output in Argentina was 12.7 million tons in 2020. The number is expected to fall to 11.4 million in 2021 and 10.9 million in 2022, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. In the longer term, the World Bank warns, changes in weather patterns could cause corn and wheat yields in some parts of the country to fall by 80 percent.
“Several provinces could potentially see catastrophic losses, Buenos Aires, Córdoba, La Pampa, Santa Fe, especially for corn and soybeans,” Julie Rozenberg, a senior economist at the World Bank, wrote in an email.
Analysts say Argentine farmers, stung by high inflation, repeated economic crises and the pandemic and high inflation, have been slow to adopt new technologies such as drought-resistant seeds or sophisticated irrigation systems.
“There’s no technology investment capacity to face recurring weather events,” said Matías Lestani, chief economist at the Argentine Rural Confederation. Restrictions imposed by the government have limited the ability of domestic agribusiness to import critical farming equipment and supplies needed for adaptation, Lestani said. Soaring inflation and credit restrictions haven’t helped.
Twelve hundred miles south of subtropical Chaco, where Koci grows his sunflowers, farmers in Argentina’s Patagonia region tell an eerily similar story.
Winston Ninaja, an onion and carrot grower in the province of Chubut, said water shortages this year have driven yields down by 30 percent.
“My biggest headache is water,” Ninaja said. “In reality, now, you never know what to expect.”
Faiola reported from Miami. Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Sarah Kaplan in Washington contributed to this report.