Under the scorching midday sun, Pedrina Brito de Mendonça picks her way through sandy terrain dotted with shrubs and driftwood. Sandbanks and cracked mudflats stretch into the distance, hemmed in by a line of trees on the horizon, while fresh grass grows around an almost stagnant water channel.
This desolate landscape would be beautiful if it weren’t such a stark reminder of the toll the climate crisis is taking on the world’s largest tropical rainforest. Mendonça is walking along the dried-out bed of Brazil’s Rio Negro, a major Amazon river that has been reduced to a shadow of its former self as a historic drought ravages the rainforest.
In the Amazonian capital of Manaus temperatures have topped 40C and stranded boats lie askew in the drought-stricken port. Five hundred kilometres west, in Tefé, record warm waters have caused the die-off of fish and endangered dolphin species. All across the rainforest, the unusually dry season is threatening the wellbeing and livelihoods of the Amazon’s traditional populations, isolated riverine and Indigenous communities who maintain a close and balanced relationship with the fragile ecosystem in which they live.
“It’s a cruel situation,” says Mendonça, a 40-year-old resident of Saracá, one such riverside community that has been left stranded as the waters receded.
About 600,000 people have been affected by the drought in Amazonas, Brazil’s largest Amazon state, where rivers serve as roads. The number has grown as water levels have fallen further. The Rio Negro reached a 121-year low of 13.59 metres on 16 October and kept losing about 10 centimetres of depth a day in the week that followed.
“It was as if the beach suddenly rose, shutting off the mouth of the streams, the mouth of the river, closing everything off and leaving us in a tough situation,” says Abilio Lopes, who lives on the left bank of the Rio Negro in the Indigenous Baré community of São Tomé (although he is Kokama).
On the opposite bank in Saracá, locals must now walk several hundred metres over sand and mud, cross a shallow remnant of the river in a dugout canoe, and then scramble over a dune to reach the shores of the diminished Rio Negro, from where the two-hour journey to Manaus is almost impossible for big boats. Even small motorboats risk running aground in the shallow waters. Access is still more challenging for countless other riverside communities now kilometres away from the water’s edge.
This is calamitous for a population that depends on the waterways for food supplies, medication, water, access to healthcare and education services – and economic activities like fishing, tourism and the sale of agricultural produce.
“We manage to make flour [from manioc, a staple], we fish, but we have to buy the rest of our food in Manaus,” says Nelson Brito, the president of the Santa Helena do Inglês community, which is usually 10 minutes upstream from Saracá in a motorised dugout. It is now a 2km walk along the arid riverbed. Schoolchildren are without classes, weekly visits from a medical team have been suspended, and residents pray that no one falls seriously ill.
“We do have a small motorboat, but it’s bogged down in a pond. There’s no way of getting it out. Even if we could, the cost [of travelling to Manaus] would be about 800 reais (£130). And where do you get that kind of money if you’re not generating an income?” asks Adriana Azevedo de Siqueira, the hamlet’s community-run guesthouse manager.
Living within the Rio Negro sustainable development reserve, a conservation area, the 200 or so inhabitants of Saracá and Santa Helena do Inglês rely on fishing and tourism for subsistence. The former is getting harder, while the latter has ground to a halt.
Siqueira had to cancel all upcoming reservations and close the guesthouse’s doors in late September as it became inaccessible. The tourism shutdown cost the communities an estimated 200,000 reais (£33,300) in lost revenue.
“Without the income from tourism, we’re dependent on Bolsa Família,” says Siqueira, referring to the government’s social programme that provides low-income families with a 600 reais monthly handout.
Donations from churches, NGOs, and the state government has so far kept the threat of food shortages at bay. “And, thank God, our well hasn’t had a problem yet,” says Siqueira. Access to drinking water is a challenge for many forest communities, with some, like Lopes’s, resorting to drinking the silty water from wells dug in the uncovered mud flats.
“There are people who are worse off than us,” says Brito, surveying the arid landscape that would usually be submerged under the Rio Negro’s dark waters.
Scientists say this dry season’s abnormally low precipitation levels are due to the cyclical El Niño weather pattern coinciding with the warming of the ocean in the tropical North Atlantic, above the equator.
“The combination of these two factors traditionally leads to a drought in central Amazonia,” says Ayan Fleischmann, a researcher at the Tefé-based Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development. “We knew there would be a strong drought, but we didn’t know it would be so extreme,” he adds, saying this can be partly explained by an unusually hot patch in the Atlantic. Scientists attribute a worrying increase in North Atlantic surface temperatures to the human emission of heat-trapping gases.
Other factors make the current drought the most punishing ever for Amazon populations, even in areas where water levels remain above the record lows of the last extreme dry season in 2010, as is the case in the upper and middle sections of the Solimões River.
“It’s not just a drought this year. We have record-high temperatures, record numbers of fires, and landslides because of the erosion of riverbanks. Various simultaneous phenomena, some connected to global heating, others not, result in this disaster, this environmental and humanitarian catastrophe,” says Fleischmann.
“It’s a case of climate injustice. Those who cause the least harm suffer the effects the most,” says Virgilio Viana, the head of the Fundação Amazônia Sustentável (FAS), a Manaus-based NGO that is coordinating efforts to deliver humanitarian packages to riverine communities across Amazonas.
The end of October usually means the start of the rainy season in the Amazon basin, but relief will be slow to arrive this year. “Although rains have started, they are weak and not voluminous. The forecast is for rains to remain well below what would normally be expected until the start of 2024,” says Marília Guedes, a meteorologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research.
The government in Brasília has earmarked 627m reais (£104m) to fight the drought. The resources are being channelled into humanitarian assistance, dredging parts of the Solimões and Madeira rivers to facilitate fluvial navigation, and efforts to combat the record 3,556 blazes lit in October alone. However, observers say authorities fail to look ahead and implement adequate adaptation policies for forest communities to weather increasingly frequent and intense climate events.
“What we’re witnessing now will only continue and worsen. And it makes me anxious to see us walking along this cliff-edge without effective actions in terms of public policies,” says Aline Radaelli, a sociologist researching the effects of extreme climate events on the Amazon’s Indigenous and riverine populations.
“Speaking about this gives me a lump in my throat. Our forest is deteriorating, the rivers and the fish are dying,” says Lopes from São Tomé, his voice breaking. He describes how the açaí palms have dried out in his community of 30 Indigenous families, which has emptied as elderly people and the unwell relocated to the city to be closer to hospitals.
The 56-year-old journeyed to Manaus earlier this month with his heavily pregnant wife, dragging his boat more than 5km before braving a rough passage made even more dangerous by thick, blinding smoke from forest fires. “Now I’m worried about our relatives, the situation back there where our home is, and I’m worried about my wife here,” says Lopes. The couple and their three children are living crowded in a studio while they await the newest family member’s arrival.
Mendonça, born and raised on the banks of the Rio Negro, cannot imagine living outside the forest. “For people on the outside, the Amazon is a cause but, for us, it’s our home,” she says.
The entrepreneurial mother-of-three runs a crafts workshop and a restaurant in Saracá, community-based tourism initiatives developed with support from the NGO FAS and resources from the internationally backed Amazon Fund as an alternative to logging after the area became a reserve in 2008.
Amid the increasingly unpredictable climate, she frets about what the future holds. “I wonder what to do for us to have a better future because the way things are going will be pretty difficult. I worry about how we’re going to live.”