Paraguay floods offer flash of what could lie ahead

Weeks of incessant rainfall have caused major rivers in Paraguay to burst their banks, with hundreds of thousands evacuated. But with El Niño on the way, worse is to come.

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Many parts of the capital, Asunción, have been left underwater. Photo courtesy of ABC Color.

Many parts of Paraguay have been left underwater after weeks of heavy rainfall have swollen the Paraguay and Paraná rivers, in what are being described as some of the worst floods the country has ever seen. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected across the eastern and southern parts of the country, as well as tens of thousands in nearby regions of Brazil and Argentina. More than 300,000 people in 9 out of the 17 departments of Paraguay have had to abandon their homes and take refuge in precarious temporary shelter, including over 75,000 in the capital, Asunción, which is home to some 500,000 people and is straddled by the Paraguay River.

The river, which divides the country from north to south before flowing around Asunción and along the Argentinean border, was recorded to have reached a height of 7.24m on Thursday 3 July, well above the 5.5m level considered to be the ‘critical point’ at which it is in danger of flooding. Unusually heavy rains, including one day – June 27 – where an entire month’s worth of rain is reported to have fallen, have caused the river level to rise by as much as four metres over the past month. June is supposed to mark the start of the dry season, which generally lasts until September or October, which makes the flooding even more extraordinary.

As well as forcing the evacuation of close to 5% of the entire population of Paraguay, the floods have also threatened to unleash several other environmental hazards. Two of South America’s largest hydroelectric dams, the Itaipú dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border and the Yacyretá on the Argentina-Paraguay border, both on the Paraná River, are said to have potential operational issues due to the vast volumes of water they are having to deal with. Given that Paraguay gets almost all its electricity from Itaipú, such hazards have to be taken very seriously.

Meanwhile, the floods are threatening the country’s largest rubbish dump, leading to the spectre of floodwater becoming contaminated with toxic waste. Cateura, a shanty district of Asunción which recently became famous for its ‘landfill orchestra’, has been surrounded by the rising Paraguay River, to the extent that the government has been forced to declare an environmental disaster around the site.

The exceptional rainfall has caused several major rivers, including the Paraná, pictured here at the landmark Iguaçu Falls, to overflow. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

For now, though, the most obvious and critical impacts of the flooding can be seen in the barrios (districts) all along the Paraguay and Paraná rivers that have been completely submerged by the floodwaters, forcing entire communities from their homes and into temporary shelter. In many cases, fleeing families have had neither the time, nor the space in their new refuges, to take many personal belongings with them – including pets and farm animals such as pigs, sheep, and even horses, all of whom have been left behind to deal with the rising waters.

The majority of affected areas, particularly in Asunción, are poor urban areas, where communities who lacked basic amenities such as health provisions and adequate flood defences in the first place are now left with next to nothing. According to a report by IPS, some areas have been submerged due to their being trapped in between the walls that are supposed to act as flood defences against the Paraguay River, and sloped and hilly parts of the city, meaning that they have been flooded ‘like a washbowl’.

Carlos Silva, governor of the southern department of Ñeembucú, told reporters that “as well as the loss of crops, isolation of farms and flooding of houses, the damage done to roads means that we are unable to supply food to 8,000 needy flood victims in various communities of our department alone”. He added that representatives from the UN and International Red Cross had assessed the situation, and that international aid would begin to arrive soon.

The President of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes, has offered government help and “definitive solutions” to those who have been displaced, with his administration claiming that US$3m in aid has already been spent on delivering food and relief to the swelling ranks of evacuees. However, the government’s response has been criticised for being too slow and ineffective, with various problems cited such as a lack of adequate sanitation in the temporary shelters. Much of the criticism has come from social groups which have largely had to deal with the situation themselves, with claims that the areas that are both most deprived historically and most affected now are being ignored.

Furthermore, a prominent Spanish priest who has worked with Paraguay’s poor for many years has alleged that some of the money and material being dispatched to those in need is actually being siphoned off by officials from Cartes’ centre-right Colorado Party. If such allegations are true, it does not bode at all well for the legions of displaced people, who have already lost many of their possessions – including their jobs – as a result of the flooding, and will need every bit of help they can get in order to piece their lives together once the waters eventually recede.

Some families are choosing to stay behind in their homes, despite them being underwater. Photo courtesy of ABC Color.

When and to what extent exactly the rivers will return to their normal levels, though, is open to speculation. Shorter-term forecasts are mixed, with some suggesting that more rain is on the way while others predict that the dry season is already about to kick in, with water levels in the headwaters of Paraguay’s main rivers said to be stable or even falling slightly. However, as Max Pastene of the National Meteorological and Hydraulic Bureau told IPS, the rainy season is due to begin once again in October, meaning that there is not really enough time for river levels to recede properly before they begin to fill up again. Some are forecasting that because of this, river levels are unlikely to return to normal until next year.

Moreover, another climatic feature is set to impose itself on the current situation, bringing the prospect of the months ahead bearing yet more problems for the residents of the Paraguay and Paraná river basins. The El Niño phenomenon, caused by warming ocean waters in the Eastern Pacific off the coast of Peru, is widely believed to be about to set in. El Niño events are usually associated with increased rainfall and floods across the Americas, and were linked to the devastating floods that hit Colombia during the last event in 2010-11.

Although experts believe that the developing event is shaping up to be only a ‘moderate’ one, Pastene said that “the rains [in Paraguay] from October onwards will be particularly intense because of the El Niño”. Given that the phenomenon usually lasts for up to a year, and peaks around Christmas (hence the relation of the name in Spanish to the baby Jesus), the impact of this year’s event could be devastating for the regions of Paraguay that are already coping with some of the worst floods ever experienced, and which will now have just a few months to recover before it all – potentially – starts over again.

Experts warn the floods may take months to recede, especially with the El Niño climate phenomenon expected to coincide with the rainy season, which usually starts in October. Photo courtesy of AP.

See also: El Niño an unwelcome Christmas present as floods devastate Paraguay and Argentina

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