Amazon forest loss risks water security across South America

Kayapo Indians on a road block to stop the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: International Rivers via
Kayapo Indians on a road block to stop the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: International Rivers via
Water, food supplies and energy production are all in jeopardy as the Amazon forest is felled for profit. And as Paul Brown writes, the damage is spreading well beyond Amazonia itself ...
The combination of industrial and agricultural pollution and droughts is creating a once unthinkable vulnerability for the five countries of Amazonia.

The continued destruction of the Amazon to exploit its resources for mining, agriculture and hydro-power is threatening the future of the South American continent, according to a report by campaigning groups using the latest scientific data.

Five countries - Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru - share the Amazon, and for all of them the forest area occupies more than 40% of their territory. All face threats to their water supply, energy production, food and health.

Declining rainfall

In addition, the report says, because of the over-exploitation of the region rainfall will fall by 20% over a heavily-populated area far to the south of Amazonia known as the La Plata basin, covering parts of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Last month it was reported that deforestation in Amazonia had increased by almost a third in the past year, with an area equal to 50 football pitches destroyed every minute since 2000.

The report, the Amazonia Security Agenda, authored by the Global Canopy Programme and CIAT, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, says the prosperity of the region is based on the abundance of water.

"Amazonia's abundant natural resources underpin water, food, energy, and health security for the economy and people of the region and far beyond", the report states.

"At the heart of this nexus of securities is water. So abundant in the region, but now under increasing threat as industrial pollution increases, and unprecedented droughts reveal a once unthinkable water vulnerability."

The forest maintains its own rainfall

Key to the problem is the role of the forest in recycling water deep into the interior of the South American continent, as rainfall onto the forest is transpired by trees back into the atmosphere, regenerating atmospheric humidity and clouds, and creating powerful thermal updraughts:

"The loss of ecosystem services through deforestation undermines the securities and particularly water security that is so pivotal. The forest recycles 20-25% of the rainfall it receives, and air travelling over
extensive forest cover may generate twice as much rainfall as air over deforested land."

As forest is cut down this process is disrupted - leaving both people and ecosystems at increasing risk.

Pollution - a growing problem

Another problem that comes with Amazonia's increasing industrialisation is pollution of both air and water, with toxic contaminants including mercury from gold-mining.

"Large-scale deforestation is predicted to reduce rainfall by up to 21% by 2050, although the science is still uncertain. Furthermore, deforestation is likely to affect water quality through increasing soil erosion and leaching of nutrients and heavy metals including mercury."

The combination of industrial and agricultural pollution and droughts is creating a once unthinkable vulnerability for the five countries of Amazonia.

And most people depend on the rainforest and the rain it brings to keep their water clean: "Water purification ecosystem services are important for the provision of clean drinking water. However, limited access to a proper water supply, treatment and basic sanitation infrastructure across Amazonia, particularly in rural areas, makes water security of Amazonian populations extremely vulnerable to pollution.

"This has knock on effects on food security (fisheries) and health security. In Ecuador 30,000 Amazonian citizens are seeking compensation through the courts at the billion US dollar scale over claims of toxic pollution by oil companies in the region."

Profits siphoned off

The huge wealth being generated from the forests comes with large-scale environmental and social costs. Local people do not benefit, and the profits from minerals, mining and agriculture are siphoned out of the region.

The large-scale economic development of the region causes deforestation. That in turn is threatening not only the wellbeing of the local people but the economic stability of the industries themselves.

Climate change is adding to both the uncertainty and the instability. Increasing temperatures, as much as 3.5°C in the near future, changing rainfall patterns and more intense and frequent extreme weather events will have further impacts on the health and well-being of the population.

Hydroelectricity at risk

Energy supply from hydro-electric dams will also decline, according to the report: "Hydropower generation, especially for run of river dams, will be more vulnerable in the dry season, challenging future energy security across the region, especially given plans to invest heavily in new Amazonian hydropower."

The biggest such example is the highly controversial Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon, which is projected to supply 40% of Brazil's additional electricity needs by 2019.

Belo Monte "will have a significantly lower power output than expected due to regional deforestation - up to 13% lower than under a fully-forested scenario, and up to 36% lower by 2050 if current deforestation rates continue."

Big bill coming

Among those welcoming the report is Manuel Pulgar, Peru's environment minister. He will play a leading part when the country's capital, Lima, hosts the 20th summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2014.

He said: "Climate change is a global problem, but one that will multiply local and regional problems in unforeseeable ways. In Latin America, we have taken Amazonia and its seemingly limitless water and forests as a given. But recent unprecedented droughts have shown us just what happens when that water security falters ..."

According to the report, the impacts of environmental degradation that have so far been felt in other parts of the world are now likely to be felt in Amazonia, threatening economic development and security.

Governments in the region, it says, need to recognize that development cannot continue without recognising the damage caused to the water supply and the climate both globally and locally. Policy makers need scientists to monitor changes to conditions and the economic risks they pose.

Trillions of tons of water

These findings must be shared between academic institutions and governments so that they can decide how to remedy the problem. Annual reviews of dangerous hotspots are also needed, and cross-border groups of experts who could help both national and regional development plans to be worked out.

Carlos Klink, Brazil's national secretary for climate change and environmental quality, endorsed these findings. "We are understanding more and more how interdependent water, food, energy and health security are across our continent.

"There is also interdependence between the countries that share the Amazon, which recycles trillions of tons of water that all our people and economies rely on.

"The challenge that we are just beginning to recognise and act upon is one of transitioning to a more sustainable economy - one that values the role of a healthy Amazonia in underpinning long-term security and prosperity."



Paul Brown writes for the Climate News Network.

Additional reporting by Oliver Tickell.

Download the report: Amazonia Security Agenda.

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