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As the Amazon rainforest goes dry, a desperate wait for water

Nov. 21, 2022 Updated Mon., Nov. 21, 2022 at 3:23 p.m.

By Terrence McCoy Washington Post

RIO BRANCO, Brazil - In her 60 years of life in the Amazon, Antonia Franco dos Santos has never had much money. Food was sometimes scarce. But never in the forest, with its heavy rains and endless rivers, had she known a life without water - not until she moved to this city along the southern crest, where her reserves are now down to the last gallon and the deliveryman is nowhere to be seen.

“He’ll come,” Franco says, looking into the distance. “He will.”

It hasn’t rained in more than a month, and probably won’t for another. The community pond that Franco and her neighbors used during the rainy season has dried to a muddy puddle. A water hole they’ve dug in desperation hasn’t conserved a drop. And inside her wooden shack this Monday morning is a stack of dishes, unwashed; a pile of clothes, unwashed; and an infant great-grandchild named Samuel. He needs a washing, too.

For Franco, this makes three drought-racked years in a row, living in a landscape she never imagined: an Amazon gone dry.

“I have to hope,” she says, glancing down at her mismatched socks. “Today will be different. Enough water will come.”

For years, scientists have been warning that the Amazon is speeding toward a tipping point - the moment when deforestation and global warming would trigger an irreversible cascade of climatic forces, killing large swaths of what remained. If somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the forest were lost, models suggested, much of the Amazon would perish.

About 18 percent of the rainforest is now gone, and the evidence increasingly supports the warnings. Whether or not the tipping point has arrived - and some scientists think it has - the Amazon is beginning to collapse.

More than three-quarters of the rainforest, research indicates, is showing signs of lost resilience. In fire-scorched areas of the Rio Negro floodplains, one research group noted a “drastic ecosystem shift” that has reduced jungle to savanna. In the southeastern Amazon, which has been assaulted by rapacious cattle ranching, trees are dying off and being pushed aside by species better acclimated to drier climes. In the southwestern Amazon, fast-growing bamboo is overtaking lands ravaged by fire and drought. And in the devastated transitional forests of Mato Grosso state, researchers believe a local tipping point is imminent.

The rainforest has never been closer to what scientists predict would be a global calamity. Because it stores an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon, the Amazon is seen as vital to forestalling catastrophic global warming. But during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who supports its development, deforestation has risen to a 15-year high. Parts of the forest now emit more carbon than they absorb. If the rest follows, the impact will be felt all over the world.

The stakes are highest in the forest itself, where millions of people are for the first time reckoning with a hotter, smokier and drier Amazon. Strange sights are being reported: Wells that have gone dry. Streams that have vanished. The arrival of the maned wolf, a species native to South American savannas. Even a scourge familiar elsewhere in Brazil but not here: thirst.

One place in its stranglehold is the remote city of Rio Branco in Acre state, where scientists fear that the climate has already changed. Every rainy season seems to bring floods, when the rivers swell with runoff once caught by the forest. And nearly every dry season ushers in a drought, when a growing number of people are forced to choose between using dirty water or none at all.

The impact on public health is already apparent, particularly among the young. Acre state was struck by an outbreak of acute diarrhea last year that killed two children, and cases surged again this year. Smoke from rampant forest fires has so polluted Rio Branco’s air that dozens of people are sent to hospitals every dry season with respiratory illnesses.

The community, beset by another punishing drought this year, is taking extraordinary steps to survive. Each morning, the local government dispatches a fleet of tank trucks bearing water to a greater number of locations than ever before: schools, hospitals, the prison, and a swelling number of impoverished communities not connected to the municipal water line, where historic sources are running dry and daily existence is now organized around the deliveries.

They come to Franco’s enclave twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, when residents replenish their reserves and the tense wait for the next delivery begins anew.

On that Monday morning in late August, Franco hears the water truck’s arrival just after 9 o’clock. But she doesn’t move. The eight households in this pocket of the Adauto Frota slum draw water in order of their proximity to the communal tank. And Franco’s shack, which she shares with her 17-year-old granddaughter, the girl’s boyfriend and their son, is the second-farthest away.

On the best of days, Franco might get almost all her share, quieting her worries over what might befall baby Samuel - diarrhea, dehydration, something worse - if they don’t receive enough water. But this morning is hot and dry. The community has gone four days since the last delivery. She wants to believe a spirit of sharing will trump individual need, but when she finally gets the community hose, it’s late. The sun is setting. She puts the hose into her tank and steps back.

The water comes out in a trickle.

“It’s weak,” she says, anxiety in her voice.

She adjusts the hose, twisting it this way and that. But the flow is still too weak. Others have taken far more than their share. It will be hours before the tank fills, if it does at all. She looks back at her house.

The stack of dishes. The pile of clothes. And, most pressingly, Samuel.

“We just have to hope,” she says.

- - -

In the 1970s, Brazilian researcher Enéas Salati upended much of what scientists thought they knew about the Amazon. Until then, it was believed that the forest’s abundant rain was a function of climate. But by studying oxygen isotopes in rainwater throughout the Amazon, Salati found that about half of the precipitation was recycled. There had been a hidden source of water in the Amazon all along, Salati discovered: the forest itself.

Water cycles through the biome, to be used and reused. The trees, with deep root systems, drink up rainwater, then secrete the moisture into the atmosphere. Easterly winds from the Atlantic then carry it farther inland, where it forms into rain and the process repeats. A single water molecule can be recycled up to six times.

“An almost unique precipitation and water-recycling regime,” Salati called it.

This understanding became the foundation for a new field of study, much of which would focus on the same urgent questions. If the hydraulic cycle that sustains the Amazon is dependent on its flora, what happens when the vegetation is cut down? How much deforestation can the system withstand? Is there a point of no return, and if so, where is it?

One influential study put the trigger at 40 percent deforestation. But then scientists added the variables of climate change and fire - particularly destructive in a forest that doesn’t burn naturally - and argued that it would take much less. The forest’s vastness, they said, belied its critical vulnerability.

“We stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here,” Brazilian climatologist Carlos Nobre and American ecologist Thomas Lovejoy wrote in Science Advances in 2019. “It is now.”

The region most likely to fall first is the southeast, where dry-season temperatures in the past four decades have risen an average of 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) and rainfall has dropped by a quarter. Its collapse could have devastating consequences, depriving the western forests of moisture and dragging other parts of the ecosystem down with it.

“Cascading tipping events” is how one research team this year described it.

Rio Branco, the Acre state capital, is particularly vulnerable to this sequence. Distant from the Atlantic, dependent on recycled rain, it also sits at the western edge of the arc of deforestation, where three-fourths of the Brazilian Amazon’s losses are concentrated. Over the past four decades in Acre, the mean monthly precipitation from June through August - the height of the dry season - has dropped by nearly a third, Utrecht University researcher Arie Staal found. In Rio Branco, it has plunged to a deeper low, from 2.2 inches to 1.4 inches.

“No other region is more affected by the arc of deforestation than the southwest,” climate scientist Bernardo Flores said. “We see it already happening: Deforestation is depriving the forest of rain.”

The effect is local as well. When Rio Branco knocked down much of its forest, it killed about 200 sources of water that fed the city’s central artery, the Acre River. In the coming decades, if trends continue, the river will dip so low that “not even sewer runoff will go down it,” said Claudemir Mesquita, a former state environmental official. “It’s an atomic bomb, and it’s armed.”

- - -

This, now, is the dry season in Rio Branco: Months of overcast skies - not from clouds, but the smoke of forest fires. Days so hot that farmhands are sent home. The river ebbing to historic lows. And armadas of water delivery trucks, called “pipa,” taking over the roads.

Commanding the wheel of one is a thin man with thick, shaggy hair. Over the past two decades, as droughts have grown more frequent and people started complaining of water shortages, he has become one of Rio Branco’s most ubiquitous figures.

His name is Fredy Salles. And he’s the water man.

Every weekday morning at dawn, he drives to the edge of town, where the paved roads give way to dirt. The open-air compound looks just like everything around it: dry and desolate. But this is a “source,” as everyone here calls it, where pipa drivers pump up fresh water from an underground aquifer that, for now, still runs deep and cool.

As the rising sun breaks through the smoky haze, Salles waits for his 4,200-gallon tank to fill, his fingers thrumming the steering wheel.

“Let’s go,” he says with a sigh.

The height of the dry season is here, and Salles, who has delivered water in Rio Branco longer than just about anyone, knows it’s up to people like him to keep the city running. He drives to schools so the kids will have water to drink. He hurries to the prison to avert a riot. He fuels the children’s hospital and the maternity ward. He ventures into gang-controlled neighborhoods where the state is all but absent - except for organizing his water deliveries.

His tank filled and engine clanging, Salles makes the sign of the cross and pulls out into a city that every year feels more different from the one he once knew. He grew up in a community of rubber tappers, where the forest was lush and the water so plentiful that he couldn’t have dreamed of it drying up. The images he sees now outside his window - roadside infernos, barren fields where the city couldn’t find water, the forest all gone - would have seemed so cartoonishly apocalyptic he would have laughed. Even this job seemed odd when he took it in 2000. But the work has since come to define him, give him purpose.

Salles is a pipa driver, here to serve the thirsty.

And here comes one more, an elderly woman on dialysis, limping up to her empty water drum as he puts in a thick hose to fill it. “Every year it’s worse and worse,” Marli da Silva Araújo said. “It’s a mercy they give us water.”

And 15-year-old Viviane Batista da Silva, who has never known anything but dry-season droughts and water rationing. “Hasn’t it always been this way?” she asks.

And the young mother of four who watches as Salles fills a drum for her neighbors. “It’s hard to beg for water,” says Luciana Costa do Nascimento, 31. Her white blouse is dotted with stains she can’t remove. “But we have no water.”

Salles first saw such need just after the drought of 2010. He’d gone to a community he didn’t know to deliver water, and was stunned to find children dirty, families with nothing to drink, everyone hungry. In the Amazon, extreme poverty was nothing new, but rarely had it seemed so raw. Salles began to see these people as the hidden victims of deforestation. They had depended on the forest - fishing from its streams, drinking from its pools - and were destitute without it.

He encounters such people everywhere these days, on deliveries that take him deeper into the countryside, even to Indigenous lands, where in one arid stretch nearly 90 miles from Rio Branco, a leader of the Apurinã people waits for his water to come.

Geraldo Apurinã, 62, looks out at the sun-wilted territory that little resembles the one in which he grew up. In front of his wooden house now runs a federal highway that changed everything here, even lending its name to the reserve: Apurinã Indigenous Territory kilometer 124, BR-317.

Highway BR-317, built in 1956, brought the loggers who razed the forest. And the ranchers who dammed the creeks to capture water for their cattle, cutting off the territory’s main source. The game the Apurinã had hunted soon disappeared, and the Indigenous leader saw his own people, with little food and water, become agents of the forest’s destruction, tearing it down to become cattle ranchers themselves. Now the highway brings in the natural consequence of these losses: water deliveries.

The flow from the water truck gushes into his drum. Apurinã looks out upon all that the highway has given him. His grandchildren play on smartphones. His house is wooden and strong. Nearby is a small store where he can buy soda and processed snacks.

“But none of this makes up for what we lost,” Apurinã says.

His culture is dying. Almost no one here speaks the native language anymore. Even the water has abandoned this place, and increasingly Apurinã feels as if it’s time he did the same. The deliveries are, to him, a final indignity. He’s been reduced to dependency.

His drum is topped off. The water truck starts up again. And his house is left behind, lost in a cloud of dust coming in off the dirt highway.

There isn’t a cloud in the sky. Just smoke and sun.

- - -

For Franco, the best moment of the week is here. It’s 6:30 on the morning after the water delivery. Humming to herself, she puts some water to boil and makes tea and coffee - two luxuries she couldn’t have managed the day before - and glances at the dirty clothes and dishes. The thought of being able to finally clean what needs cleaning brings her such joy that she’s almost able to forget that they received far less water than she’d hoped.

“Today, everything is a blessing,” she says, bending over to heft a basket of laundry.

Franco came here from the river town of Pauini in Amazonas state, 200 miles to the north, far from the arc of deforestation and accessible only by boat. She’d lived her entire life along the bends of the Purus River, leaving only when her son and daughter asked her to come down to Rio Branco, where they lived for work. Her son said he’d built her a small shack next to his house. Wanting the family to be together, she arrived in late 2019 with her granddaughter Sara, in the middle of the rainy season.

“A good place to live,” she remembers thinking.

The pond was overflowing with water. The ground was soggy and fertile. Rain buckets were full. She moved into the shack, feeling light and unconcerned, unaware that the pond would soon dry out, the ground would harden and crack, and the buckets would go weeks without another drop. In that first drought, the city wasn’t yet running its deliveries to the community, so Franco set out to beg for water. She went from house to house, bucket in hand, and when one neighbor finally said, “Ma’am, you can have all the water you need,” she thanked God for being so good to her.

Now four people live in her shack, and the problem seems so much bigger. When Sara, who suffers from a learning disability, said last year that her boyfriend had gotten her pregnant, Franco was seized with worry. She understood that the weight of protecting the child would fall on her. But the question of how she would do that, in a community without water, was one she couldn’t answer. She spent months fretting over diseases the baby might catch - fears that every day, including on this one, feel on the verge of being realized.

The delivered water is about gone, used up on laundry. But chores remain.

Standing outside her shack, Franco looks down at what remains of the pond, brown and fetid, more mud than water. Another delivery isn’t due for two more days. There’s no other choice.

She picks up some soap and then lifts the basket of dirty dishes. Balancing it atop her head, she heads down to the diminished pond. She steps out onto a wooden plank at the water’s edge and, taking care to skim the only the least-murky bit from the top, starts to pour it onto the dishes, sun searing her back.

Sometimes, in moments like this, she lets her mind take her back to Amazonas, to her childhood living in her grandfather’s village, where there was only forest, rivers and rain. Whatever they put into the ground sprouted: potatoes, tomatoes, onions, pineapple. She’d do anything to go back there, when “we had so much.” But instead she’s here, cleaning dirty dishes with dirty water, without enough money to pay for transportation back to the river town she curses herself for leaving.

She finishes the chore. She puts the dishes back into the basket. Walking up to her shack, she sees the clean garments hanging on the line. The laundry is dry and nearly immaculate - just a few faint stains.

She pulls down the sheets and brings one up to her face. She breathes in the clean smell as deeply as she can, and slowly exhales. She smiles. “Smells so good,” she says, and then returns to the darkness of her shack, to check on Samuel.

The only thing left to do is to wait for more water.

- - -

For many scientists, the most pressing question is no longer whether the Amazon is reaching a tipping point, but what will come after. Some say the biome that rises from the fires will be a degraded, open-canopy forest. Others say it will remain closed, but deformed. But perhaps the most likely outcome is far more drastic - the destroyed forest giving way to an expansive grassland.

Research suggests that the savannization of the Amazon, coupled with global warming, would subject millions in the region to potentially deadly heat. Even if carbon emissions are reduced, 6 million Brazilians could face that risk. But if emissions continue on their current trajectory, by the turn of the century about a third of the Brazilian Amazon’s population - 11 million people - will face temperatures that pose “extreme risk to human health,” researchers reported last year in the scientific journal Communications Earth & Environment.

The next century could see an exodus from the Amazon, an outflow that would reconfigure the Americas.

As Salles drives past a roadside inferno early one morning, that prospect seems even closer. Rio Branco already feels on the brink of collapse. The afternoon before, during a 14-hour shift, he received an urgent message: The prison was out of water. He refilled its tanks in time, but found himself worrying. He could have blown a tire. Or been slowed by an accident. Any number of unforeseen events can delay the water’s arrival and ignite a riot.

The water delivery system has come to seem increasingly precarious, dependent on everything going right. He doesn’t know how long it can last, or when the people here will become so fed up - exhausted by the heat and water shortages - that they decide to leave.

He passes a second fire. Flames envelope a distant field.

Salles doesn’t see how this cycle of fire, deforestation and drought will ever break. Most everyone he speaks with believes that deforestation is depleting the water and that those who are suffering the most are the poor. And yet, it’s precisely this poverty that’s being used to justify more devastation. The politicians who say developing the Amazon will bring economic prosperity are the ones here who get votes. In October’s presidential election, Bolsonaro lost the contest, but won an overwhelming share of the vote in the arc of deforestation.

Even Salles has voted for such candidates. Not because he didn’t fear the environmental consequences of their vision, but because the daily plight of the poor seemed more urgent. Rio Branco has the smallest economy among Brazilian state capitals. People need work, even if the jobs they take lead to more destruction.

He passes a third fire, so deep in the fields that Salles knows authorities will simply let it burn.

Out there, beyond the rising smoke, is his next stop: Franco’s community. To Salles, she’s the quiet woman who lives at the back of the enclave. To Franco, however, the sight of his water truck is deliverance, proof that God is good.

“Today will be better,” Franco says inside her shack. “Today there will be more water.”

The difficult math has not changed. One 2,600-gallon tank. Eight homes to fill. Franco, too afraid to confront her neighbors in an area dominated by gangs, is still seventh in line. But she thinks she’ll have to get more this time. Finally, the dishes will get the cleaning they need.

The community tank is filled. Each of the six homes before hers takes its fill. Then her household is finally up next in line. It’s again late in the day.

Yelling with glee, she runs down to the community hose, gurgling with fresh water. Moving quickly, she fits it to another hose, and then another, like a string of extension cords connecting to a faraway plug. Then she places the end of the final hose into her water drum and, breathing out slowly, takes a step back, hoping, hoping.

“Oh, my God,” she says.

“It’s weak again.”

She looks at her shack, where Samuel is asleep. Then she glances down at the pond, where she knows she’ll soon have to return, and which, within the month, will be so dry she’ll no longer have even its soupy waters as a last resort.

She looks back at the hose.

“Just a dribble,” she says.

She sits down on the bare ground, pulls her knees beneath her chin and, as night descends, listens to water trickle into an empty drum.

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