ROSARIO, Argentina — The fisherman recently woke up early, knocked on the fuel containers of his small boat to make sure he had enough for the day, and set out on the Paraná River with fishing net in hand.
The outing was a waste of time. The river, an economic lifeline in South America, has shrunk significantly during a severe drought, damaging lives and livelihoods along its banks and far beyond.
“I haven’t caught a single fish,” said 68-year-old fisherman Juan Carlos Garate, pointing to grassy areas where there used to be water. “Everything is dry.”
The reduced flow of the Paraná, at its lowest level since the 1940s, has turned the delicate ecosystems in the vast area between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay upside down and has led to dozens of communities seeking freshwater.
In a region heavily dependent on rivers for power generation and transportation of agricultural commodities that are a pillar of national economies, the withdrawal of the continent’s second largest river has also damaged trade, driving costs of energy production and shipping have increased.
Experts say deforestation in the Amazon, along with rainfall patterns altered by a warming planet, are helping fuel the drought. Much of the moisture that passes into the rain that feeds the Paraná’s tributaries comes from the Amazon rainforest, where trees release water vapor in a process scientists call “flying rivers.”
Rampant deforestation has disrupted this moisture flow, weakening the flows that feed the larger rivers in the catchment – and transformed the landscape.
“This is much more than a water issue,” said Lucas Micheloud, a Rosario-based member of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers. Frequent fires, he said, turn resource-rich rainforests into savannas.
Although the water level varies in different locations, the Paraná now averages 3.5 feet below normal flow, according to Juan Borus, an expert at Argentina’s government-run National Water Institute, who has studied the river for more than three decades.
The situation is likely to worsen at least until early November, the start of the rainy season in the region, but the drought could last longer. Experts say climate change has made it more difficult to make accurate predictions.
Extreme events such as the drought that affects much of South America are becoming “more frequent and intense,” said Lincoln Alves, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, who contributed to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel. worked on climate change.
Argentina declared a six-month state of emergency for the Paraná River region in late July, calling the crisis the worst in 77 years. Government officials say they were caught off guard.
“We never thought we would reach the level we have now,” said Gabriel Fuks, who leads a team coordinating the government’s response to emergencies across the country. “We were not prepared for this emergency.”
The government’s top priority is to help the 60 or so towns along the river that have dangerously low water levels, Mr Fuks said.
In Paraná, a riverside town about 200 miles from Rosario, a pump that supplies 15 percent of the water to the city of 250,000 was recently shut down because the water level was too low. City officials had to rush to come up with a solution, said Leonardo Marsilli, the city’s water services technical coordinator.
All along the river, the low water levels have consequences for daily life.
For Luciano Fabián Carrizo, a 15-year-old who lives in El Espinillo, the same river island community as Mr. Garate, the fisherman, the sudden disappearance of water means he now has to walk two hours to get to school. The commute took him 15 minutes by boat.
Across the river, at Terminal Puerto Rosario, one of the city’s ports, officials had to extend the arms of cranes more than two meters to reach ships, said Gustavo Nardelli, one of the port directors.
And in downtown Rosario, Guillermo Wade, head of the Maritime and Port Activities Chamber, makes frenetic calculations every morning to find out how much can be loaded onto cargo ships without risking getting stuck along the shallowest parts of the river. .
Ships have loaded 26 percent less cargo than usual. mr. Wade fears that number could rise to 65 percent later this year if the most bleak predictions come true.
“We are losing an outrageous amount of cargo,” said Mr. wade.
Shipowners are also increasing costs to offset the risk of getting stuck in the shallows.
The average price of a sea voyage has more than doubled since May, from $15,000 a day to $35,000, according to Gustavo Idígoras, the head of the Ciara-Cec chamber that represents grain exporting companies.
The shallow Paraná River increased the cost of agricultural exports from Argentina by $315 million between March and August, according to an estimate by the Rosario Board of Trade. More than 80 percent of the country’s agricultural exports, including nearly all of the soybeans, the country’s main cash crop, carry the river into the Atlantic Ocean.
The lack of water also makes energy more expensive for both Argentina and Brazil, where underperforming dams are forcing governments to rely more heavily on more expensive energy sources.
The Club Náutico Sportivo Avellaneda, a water sports club on the riverbank in Rosario, had to reinforce docks that suddenly threatened to collapse. Sailboats and small yachts are aground.
“This section generally has four meters of water and now it is completely dry,” said Pablo Creolani, the club president. “We never thought something like this could happen.”
Scientists say this type of drought is likely to become more frequent in the future, causing changes in the local ecosystem that could prove irreversible.
“Maybe this isn’t the new normal, but it’s a new situation that won’t be so rare anymore,” said Walter Collischonn, a hydrologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
Some blame Brazil, Argentina’s giant neighbor, where environmental protection agencies have eroded and the government is trying to make it easier to mine and develop land in the Amazon.
“This is all thanks to the disaster they are causing in Brazil. They cut everything down,” said Gabriel Callegri, a 50-year-old fisherman from El Espinillo. “Who isn’t mad about that?”
Viviana Aguilar, a 60-year-old retiree who has been rowing along the Paraná River for more than two decades, finds it hard to believe how much the landscape has changed in the past year as islands have sprung up where there was once only water.
“It is humanity that is endangering nature,” she said.
Manuela Andreoni contributed from Rio de Janeiro.