Alternative World Water Forum

Environmentalists warn spreading farmland is partly to blame for rising waters

The recent flooding that forced tens of thousands of people in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil to spend New Year’s Day evacuated from their homes has brought renewed attention to the record-level of deforestation in the region over the past 20 years — a trend that has come hand-in-hand with the expansion of the soybean harvest.

The three countries that were hard-hit by the end-of-year flooding have experienced high levels of rain because of El Niño and fewer trees means nature can lend less of a hand to absorb the excess water.

“The floods are a natural phenomenon but what’s not natural is the disaster many provinces are facing, caused by a combination of a dangerous situation such as more rain and a higher degree of vulnerability. Deforestation increases that vulnerability,” Carolina Vera, a Conicet researcher and climate expert, told the Herald. “It’s an issue that must be discussed.”

The area worst-hit by the floods in the three countries correlates with the area that saw the largest levels of deforestation, driven in large part by the desire for farmland to harvest soybeans.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) included the three countries that are now affected by flooding in the region — Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil — in the top 10 countries that saw the largest amount of deforestation over the past 25 years.

“Everybody knew El Niño was going to happen but it’s not the only reason for the floods. Fields that used to be packed with forests are now green deserts of soy that can’t absorb any water,” Enrique Viale, head of the Environmental Lawyers Association, told the Herald. “The agribusiness started in the 1990s, which led straight to the rising deforestation.”

El Niño is a naturally occurring phenomenon that involves fluctuating ocean temperatures. But this year’s has been one of the most intense since 1950.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading group of experts on climate change, said 4.3 percent of the planet’s deforestation is happening in Argentina. Only 27 percent of the country’s native forests are still standing after long years of intensive deforestation.

The figures are staggering.

Between 1990 and 2015, the country lost 7.6 million hectares of forests, an area the size of Scotland. That means 300,000 hectares of forests that could help absorb water during periods of heavy rain were lost per year. Santiago del Estero, Salta, Formosa and Chaco have long been the most affected provinces, accounting for 80 percent of the country’s deforestation.

“If you look not only at the current floods but also at the ones of the last few years, the link with the deforestation is evident,” Andrés Nápoli, head of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), told the Herald. “That comes in addition to a lack of water regulation policies that worsens the situation.”

Read more on the website of the Buenos Aires Herald

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