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wetland

drying up

MATO GROSSO
MATO GROSSO DO SUL

BRASIL

Located in the Upper Paraguay River Basin in central South America, the Pantanal is the largest tropical wetland on the planet, covering an area of more than 179,000 km2 between Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

The Pantanal is home to one of the highest concentrations of flora and fauna biodiversity in the entire continent. In recent years, severe droughts and devastating wildfires have ravaged the region, threatening all life sustained by the wetland. 

«I witnessed everything that used to exist here because I was born and raised here. There will be children who no longer recognize what a fish is because no fish can be found. Not any. We used to have water here, lots of water, but not anymore. We had a bit of water last year, but now you can see how dry everything is, much drier. Nowadays, you don’t see anybody in the river, not even the fish. There’s no place to go fishing. The river is almost empty.» – Benedito Alves da Silva – Fisherman from Barão de Melgaço, Mato Grosso

The entire Pantanal wild and human life depends on the seasonal flood pulse of the wetland, on the rising water that is brought from the high plateau to the flatland by rain, and on the overflowing of rivers and their runoff, which feed into lagoons, marshes, savannas and forests, thus renewing life after the Pantanal’s dry season.

What happens when the pulse flood is disturbed and the water fails to flow?: “A wetland without water is a wetland without life”.

The freshwater in Brazil accounts for 12% of the Earth’s freshwater resources and 53% of South America’s water resources. From 1991 to 2020, Brazil lost more than 15% of its surface water, according to research conducted by MapBiomas. 

Out of all the biomes in the country, this reduction has been more pronounced in the Pantanal, where there has been a 71% reduction of its surface water during seasonal floodings since 1991.  

“There’s no more water in the places where the fish used to go to reproduce when the floods came. Everything dried up. The lakes where they went to reproduce are dry, and today, where there used to be water, there’s now only sand. It hurts both the fish and us, because we need them. If there’s no flooding, there are no fish.” -Theylon Xávier da Silva – Fisherman and ecotourism guide from Porto Jôfre, Mato Grosso-  

In 1988, during the first flood season recorded in the historical data for the Pantanal, the average surface water area was 2,064,344 hectares, according to the MapBiomas study. In 2021, its minimum area was 312,642 hectares. 

The Pantanal has been suffering the consequences of one of the worst droughts in fifty years, leaving the area extremely vulnerable to wildfires. Some regions of the Pantanal that never dried out before have now run out of water. 

Despite the Pantanal being a resilient biome, the increasing intensity and duration of droughts and fires as a result of different human activities in the area, such as deforestation, agricultural expansion, cattle ranching and river damming –all aggravated by climate change– have pushed the wetland to its limits. Residents and scientists fear the collapse of the wetland. 

In the last 36 years, The Pantanal biome has been hit by the worst fires in Brazil. During this period, 57% of the territory (equivalent to 86,403 km2) burned at least once, according to the same MapBiomas study.

At the height of the drought crisis in 2019, fires burned 16,000 km2 of the Pantanal. The scenario was even more catastrophic in 2020, burning 39,000 km2. This represents one-third of the entire biome, an area equivalent to the size of Switzerland.

Facing a desperate situation, firefighters and local groups of people and volunteers from the Northern Pantanal (Mato Grosso) and Southern Pantanal (Mato Grosso do Sul) organized themselves to fight the fires, rescue animals, and protect their territories and the natural reserves on which they also depend for their survival.  

“Life for the swamp farmer is dramatically changed. Harvesting any plant or fruit is a difficult task because we no longer have rain the way we used to have it. This drought has changed everything, and cycles haven’t been the same. If you want to harvest an onion or a tomato, you must soak the plant because there’s no rain. Too much has changed in the swamp farmer’s lifestyle. It’s terrible the way cattle suffer. All animals suffer, and so do we. We’re doing fine down here, but the water has run out heading towards the Paiaguás. Countryside and greenwood, as seen here, can no longer be found there. It’s all too dry.» -Aleixo Marques da Silva – Cowboy from Corumbá, Mato Grosso do Sul-

The ecological impacts of recent years’ fires in the Pantanal are immeasurable. According to scientific research published in Nature, nearly 17 million animals may have been killed in the 2020 fires.  

Following the fires that ravaged the wetland two years ago, various groups have mobilized to train and prepare local fire departments in riparian, rural and indigenous communities in the region, as well as to monitor reserves and do their best to prevent a new catastrophe from occurring in the Pantanal.

As a consequence of the fires, almost half of the Pantanal’s indigenous lands burned in 2020, and the indigenous people were forced to abandon their homes and take refuge in other municipalities, according to Agência Pública. 

Such impacts further negatively affect the health of people living in and around the region, food production, food security and access to water. 

“If we, the swamp farmers, don’t organize ourselves to protect our forests, then everything is over. Trying to put out fires day and night, again and again, is too much to bear. It saddens us to speak about it for everything we went through last year with the fires. It wasn’t easy at all. Many animals died. We had a huge loss, but we’re recovering. We went up the river two or three months ago and hardly spotted any jaguars. We sometimes see three or four of them now. It fills us with joy because we know that animals are coming back. That’s a sign that all the effort we put into trying to control the fires and protect their habitat paid off because they’re now returning.» -Theylon Xávier da Silva – Fisherman and ecotourism guide from Porto Jôfre, Mato Grosso-   

The principal threats to the Pantanal are uncontrolled fires, deforestation, agricultural expansion around the rivers, the use of pesticides and the proliferation of projects such as hydroelectric dams and waterways, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 

The Pantanal drought is linked to increased deforestation in the Amazon, as some of the moisture in the biome comes from flying rivers, water vapor flows from the Tropical Atlantic which are fed by moisture from the Amazon, thereby contributing to the Pantanal’s rainfall and humidity.  

María Magdalena is a recipient of the National Geographic Society’s Emergency Fund for Journalists and the IWMF Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women Journalists, an organization that also supported her long-term work in the Pantanal.

This project has also received support from: IWMF Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women Journalists. 

María Magdalena Arréllaga

Documentalist photographer and freelance photojournalist based in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and Asunción (Paraguay). Her work focuses on socio-environmental, socio-political, territorial and gender issues in Latin America. She has been working as a freelance photographer and photojournalist in Brazil for five years, and has spent three years accompanying and documenting stories in the Pantanal. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Her work in the environmental field includes working with different international organizations, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. She is a member of Women Photograph, Diversify Photo and Agência Farpa (Brazil), and has collaborated with media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Bloomberg, among others.