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

Intense rainfall in the heart of South America has caused major rivers to overflow, resulting in widespread flooding that has displaced over 160,000 and is being blamed on a particularly severe El Niño event.

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Some of the worst flooding for decades has hit vast swathes of Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina and southern Brazil, forcing more than 160,000 people from their homes in a most unwelcome Christmas gift from El Niño. The exceptional rainfall that has caused rivers to burst their banks is being blamed on this weather phenomenon, which is caused by warming seas in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Peru and Ecuador, and gets its name from the Spanish name for the baby Jesus as its effects tend to become most pronounced around Christmas time.

This has certainly been the case as the flooding, the result of continued rainfall in the catchments areas of the Paraguay, Paraná and Uruguay rivers that has seen them rise steadily over the last few weeks, reached devastating proportions on Boxing Day (26th December), having already begun to cause havoc for thousands of households before Christmas Day.

At the latest count, more than 160,000 people had been forced to evacuate their homes, including some 130,000 people in Paraguay, the majority of them in the capital Asunción where the Paraguay and Pilcomayo rivers converge, with the former reaching a level of as much as 7.8 metres, at least 3m above its normal level and only 30cm or so from overflowing. At least four people have died as a result of the floods, while a state of emergency has been declared across the country in order to free up disaster funds that will allow the government to continue handing out humanitarian aid to those affected.

Parts of Uruguay and Argentina have also declared states of emergency, largely in the regions immediately surrounding the Paraguay, Paraná and Uruguay rivers. In Argentina, the worst effects have been concentrated in the north-eastern Entre Rios region near the Uruguay River, which is currently said to be some 14 metres above its usual levels. This has led to around 20,000 people being displaced from their homes in the city of Concordia, and has also resulted in the deaths of two people. Several thousand people have also had to be evacuated in Uruguay and the far south of Brazil, mainly in the border regions between these two countries.

paraguay floods ap bbc
Residents of Asunción use boats to navigate their flooded neighbourhood. Paraguay’s capital has been one of the areas most badly affected by the floods. Photo courtesy of AP via the BBC.

The current flooding is even more extensive than that seen in the winter of 2014, when tens of thousands of people across Paraguay were affected as neighbourhoods were flooded. Back then, the current El Niño was thought to be just beginning, and there were some predictions that there was worse to come as the weather phenomenon strengthened and took hold across the continent.

Authorities and weather forecasters fear that the situation could become even more severe, as rain continues to fall in the rivers’ catchment areas further overwhelming rivers and soils that are already at breaking point. Furthermore, while the dramatic rise in river levels has gone slightly against the grain for this time of year, experts suggest that the Paraguay River in particular tends to undergo steady rises through March and April, meaning that once the floodwaters in Asunción and elsewhere do recede, there may not be a whole lot of time before they begin to rise again in a couple of months’ time.

However, even this could take some time if meteorologists are right in their predictions that the current episode of El Niño will reach its peak in the first few months of 2016, which could lead to even more extreme rainfall across the Southern Cone of South America.

el nino noaa
El Niño, which occurs when sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific become several degrees warmer than usual (as shown in this NOAA graphic, with red and orange areas showing above-average temperatures), is said to be behind the extreme weather currently being experienced across the Americas.

While it can be hard to attribute any single weather event to something like El Niño or indeed climate change, authorities are in no doubt that the disaster unfolding in Paraguay and beyond is a direct consequence of this powerful El Niño event. According to Paraguay’s National Emergencies Office (SEN by its initials in Spanish), the flooding is “directly influenced by the El Niño phenomenon which has intensified the frequency and intensity of rains”. Furthermore Michel Jarraud, the chief of the World Meterological Organisation (WMO), a subdivision of the UN, explained that “severe droughts and devastating flooding being experienced throughout the tropics and subtropical zones bear the hallmark of this El Niño”.

This statement from Jarraud makes reference to the fact that, while on this occasion it is major flooding that has made the headlines, the impacts of El Niño across Latin America are not limited to heavier-than-usual rainfall. In many parts of the region, such as northern Brazil, much of Colombia and Venezuela, parts of Bolivia, and Central America, communities and authorities have had to grapple with severe drought conditions that are a consequence of greatly reduced rainfall over the past year or two, a situation that – again – has been directly linked to the El Niño currently underway.

Most alarming have been the widespread water stress and crop failures across Central America and northern Colombia, and more recently in Bolivia the country’s second largest lake appears to have almost completely disappeared, with a mix of El Niño, climate change, and poor management of water resources being blamed.

el nino xmas floods affected areas bbc
This graphic, from the BBC, shows the regions and provinces affected by the flooding across Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. The affected areas are predominantly those nearby the region’s three main rivers: the Paraguay, Uruguay, and Paraná.