Drought threatens fertile fields of South America’s Southern Cone

By Luis Alejandro Amaya E.

Americas Desk, Mar 22 (EFE).- With the war in Ukraine disrupting exports of wheat, the world looks to the agricultural powerhouses of South America’s Southern Cone as an alternative source of food, but the region’s farmers and ranchers are struggling under a drought that some fear could become permanent due to climate change.

As the international community marked World Water Day on Tuesday, the most dramatic manifestations of the chronic lack of rain in the Southern Cone could be seen in Argentina.

The Argentine province of Corrientes, which borders Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay, lost some 800,000 hectares (1.98 million acres) to wildfires during the first two months of this year.

Drought in Argentina has been driven by changes in recurring climate phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña and “aggressive deforestation,” according to Dario Soto-Abril, executive director of the Global Water Partnership (GWP).

The dearth of water affects not only the subsistence of growers, “but also the food insecurity of everybody in the region,” as the drop in production in Argentina contributes to inflation, he told Efe.

A report from Argentina’s main agricultural market, the Rosario Board of Trade, said that the sector’s losses during the 2021 Southern Hemisphere summer amounted to $2.93 billion.

Output of soy – Argentina is one of the leading producers – fell by 9 million tons, while the maize harvest was down 8 million tons from the previous season.

In the case of rice, a particularly water-intensive crop, lack of rainfall reduces both the size and the quality of the harvest, Maria Ines Pachecoy, an engineer with the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), told Efe.

Argentina’s neighbor across the Andes, Chile, is the Western Hemisphere nation most affected by lack of rain, according to Greenpeace, which says that drought conditions prevail on 76 percent of Chilean territory.

On March 14, four days after he took office as Chile’s president, Gabriel Boric said that the government may have to institute water rationing in parts of Santiago.

The Chilean weather service said that 2021 was the fourth-driest year on record, while forecasters suggest that the rain-suppressing La Niña may persist for a third consecutive year.

Another factor in Chile is a legal framework that has allowed private interests – mainly agribusiness, mining, and energy companies – to gain control of roughly 80 percent of the country’s water resources.

“The great challenge that remains for us is ceasing to understand water as a right of private exploitation and advancing toward its establishment as a common good that must be protected,” Greenpeace campaigns coordinator Estefania Gonzalez said.

Paraguay, the world’s No. 3 soy exporter as recently as 2020, is expected to produce 2.97 million tons in 2021-2022, a decline of nearly 69 percent from the previous harvest.

Jorge Meza, the head of the Asuncion office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told Efe that precipitation “anomalies” began to emerge in 2018 and that full-blown drought took hold the following year.

Besides the effects on the soy plantations, the drought is taking a toll on family farmers, Meza said, with output dropping by 65 percent on average and by up to 80 percent in some areas of Paraguay. EFE

Reporting by Patricia Nieto Mariño from Santiago, Laura Barros from Asuncion, and Javier Castro Bugarin from Buenos Aires.


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