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

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.


Deforestation

1988 to 2021

Deforestation

1988 to 2021

Deforestation

1988 to 2021

Deforestation

1988 to 2021

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.

The Acre state flag flies in smoky skies over the Acre River in Rio Branco on Aug. 25.

‘The tipping point is here’

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.

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