South American three-year drought partly driven by ‘triple-dip’ La Niña

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Southern Brazil, Paraguay and northeastern Argentina are still experiencing a severe drought affecting soybean and maize production.

Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, South America’s three major agricultural producers, are experiencing a prolonged drought and low water levels in their main rivers. This severely impacts harvests and river transport of important summer crops, with maize and soybeans the main casualties. 

Although conditions may improve, the grain harvests of 2022 and 2023 could result in losses that will impact the three countries’ economies severely.

However, experts say the potential magnitude is still difficult to foresee.

For soy, South America’s star grain, projections for possible losses caused by adverse weather in the countries vary. The most conservative forecasts come from the United States Department of Agriculture, which anticipates a 9.5 million tonne shortfall. In contrast, others forecast more acute losses, such as the Brazilian agency AgRural, which estimates a 20 million tonne reduction in production across the three countries.

As for maize, it will be difficult for Argentina and Brazil to reach the output that they expected even a few weeks ago, according to a report by agribusiness consultant Marianela de Emilio. “The weather continues to put South America’s production projections on a tightrope, with planting area adjustments and potential yields down,” she explained.

20,000,000 tonnes of soy will be lost in the 2021-2 harvest across Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, according to the Brazilian agency AgRural.

Weather projections, at least until the end of March or early April, are not encouraging for the entire region. The La Niña climate pattern continues to impact South American weather and contributes to drought in the three countries.

“As long as La Niña remains active, these patterns will continue, and projections are not optimistic for the short term, as we are still under the influence of a circulation pattern that inhibits rainfall in the Paraná basin area,” said Cindy Fernández of Argentina’s National Meteorological Service (SMN). 

A trio in trouble

Brazil is the world’s leading producer and exporter of soybeans and the world’s third-largest producer of maize. Both grain crops suffer this season due to the lack of rain in the country’s southern states and will see smaller harvests than expected a month ago.

Forecasts already show what has been lost. Due to the drought, Brazil’s state-owned National Supply Company (Conab), which oversees agricultural planning, cut crop estimates for coarse grains in December. For soybeans, these were reduced from 142.8 million to 140.5 million tonnes, while for maize, the authority expects an output of 112.9 million instead of 117.2 million tonnes. 

In Argentina, a lack of rainfall in the central-eastern region during the crop cycle forced estimates for the maize harvest to be cut by 8 million tonnes, from 56 million to 48 million tonnes, and soybeans from 45 million to 40 million tonnes. A heat wave hit the most fertile part of the country in the first weeks of January. 

Meanwhile, Paraguay’s situation is no better, according to the country’s agriculture minister, Moisés Bertoni. “We were doing well until the last weeks of November, but December was very dry, and in January, very high temperatures arrived, which had an impact on soya, which is Paraguay’s main export crop,” he said. 

The Rosario Stock Exchange (BCR) estimates that the drought will cut Paraguay’s expected soya production by 30%. A projected 5 million tonne shortfall in the maize harvest could mean a loss of income of around US$4.5 billion for the nation. “Many producers have opted to feed the [damaged] maize to cattle, although we are still waiting for conditions to improve,” Bertoni added. 

An unusual climate

This season’s difficulties aren’t entirely new, however. Paraguay, southern Brazil and northeastern Argentina cover a vast region of South America crossed by rivers that make up the Río de La Plata Basin and have been experiencing a severe water deficit for almost three years, with two consecutive summers under the influence of La Niña.

According to Fernández of the SMN, it has been more than 20 years since normal or above-normal rainfall has been recorded in southern Brazil, with some exceptions. This means that the region has been suffering from a long-standing water deficit. In Argentina, the northeastern Litoral region has recorded below-normal rainfall for the last two years, particularly during the summer.

This above-average intensity and duration is partly attributable to climate change, and the likelihood for the future is that these events will recur more frequently

According to Paraguayan agronomist Luis Recalde, while this year’s event is not a completely unknown or new phenomenon, it is unusual in its magnitude and duration. “This above-average intensity and duration is partly attributable to climate change, and the likelihood for the future is that these events will recur more frequently,” he said. 

For Recalde, drought problems go beyond production and are socio-environmental. These range from losses in agricultural and livestock productivity “that will have lasting effects on the prices of basic food basket products” to the amplification of forest fires, which generate “great loss of biodiversity and damage to health in terms of air quality”.

River levels remain low

The rivers that make up the Río de La Plata basin, which covers an area of over 3 million km2, are experiencing extraordinarily low water levels, which began in the southern winter of 2019 and persist today. This phenomenon has various consequences for the human use of rivers and their productive functions.

“The impacts of the lack of flow in the rivers are enormous and very diverse, but the most obvious for people are the shortage of water for consumption, and the rise in the prices of electricity, goods and fuels that are moved through the rivers or the energy generated in dams,” said Recalde.  

For Paraguay, which transports part of its grain production by barge to the agro-export ports of Rosario in Argentina, the river’s low water level has become a problem for the state. “The barges go without a full load, and that means a double cost for exports,” said Bertoni, the agriculture minister.

Argentina’s agro-industrial sector also suffers millions of dollars in losses due to the Paraná River’s low water level. According to the Rosario Stock Exchange, in 2021 alone, some US$620 million were lost as ships could not fill their cargo to capacity due to drought-related production problems.

Economic impacts

The current drought has and will have severe economic impacts. According to a report from the Rosario Stock Exchange, the impact on the Argentine economy will be at least US$4.8 billion – equivalent to 1% of the country’s GDP. 

“Even with the recovery of prices, the loss of net income for the producing sector already amounts to US$2.93 billion, which will result in less freight, less financial and intermediary services and less consumption,” the exchange’s report explains.

But the weather does not affect everyone equally. The stock exchange argued that the drought affects small and medium-sized producers, particularly tenant farmers who no longer have fields. In rented areas, the result of the current agricultural campaign is already negative.

“There is a good chance that with the current costs, the producers who continue to pursue these activities will return to making more soybeans and return to monoculture,” warned the BCR.

Carlos Achetoni, the president of the Federación Agraria Argentina, representing medium and small producers across the country, said many are already in debt. “A bad harvest leaves many in a situation of bankruptcy, and this could force more producers out of the production circuit if help does not come from the state,” he said.

According to Bertoni, agriculture accounts for 25% of the GDP directly in Paraguay, which rises to 50% if one considers the activity it generates indirectly through services such as transport or agricultural machinery. “The impact of the drought in Paraguay is brutal, and even more so if we talk about soya, which accounts for 40% of our total exports,” he explained.

In Brazil, last year alone, the drought and the energy crisis it generated caused losses of some US$1.464 billion, according to the National Confederation of Industry (CNI).

Forecasts offer no relief

The outlook for weather across South America’s agricultural region does not look promising, according to the January–March 2022 quarterly forecast from Argentina’s meteorological service. 

“There is an increased likelihood of warmer than usual average temperatures across much of the country. The regions with the highest probabilities in this category are the south of the Litoral, centre-south of [the provinces of] Santa Fe, Córdoba, Buenos Aires and La Pampa,” the report states. It is not good reading for these provinces, Argentina’s agricultural heartlands.

A bad harvest leaves many in a situation of bankruptcy, and this could force more producers out of the production circuit if help does not come from the state

As for rainfall, the forecast shows that the Litoral is almost 50% more likely to see below-normal rainfall for this quarter of the year.

Meteorological expert Cindy Fernandez said these conditions will extend across southern South America, including the sizeable agricultural production area shared by southern Brazil, Paraguay and northeastern Argentina: “The area shares weather patterns and is under the influence of La Niña for the third consecutive summer. The projections are not good.

Argentina is currently experiencing its worst drought in 60 yearsDr Juan Rivera from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council co-authors the new study. He told a press briefing that the past three years have seen the lowest accumulated precipitation in Argentina’s history.

The study finds that, in the last four months of 2022, the region received only 44% of the average precipitation – the lowest rainfall for that period in 35 years.

In October 2022, the drought put 3.5m hectares of crops and more than 18.5m cattle at risk in Argentina alone, according to the National Drought Monitoring Board. Argentina is a “major player” in the global food market, producing 22m tonnes of wheat in the 2021-22 season. But in 2023, production is expected to be around half this level, driving economic losses of $10bn for soybean, wheat and corn producers and knocking a full two points of the country’s GDP this year.

Water levels in the Paraná River – the second-longest river in South America – have plummeted to their lowest level in nearly 80 years, impacting hydropower generation, river-borne food shipments and freshwater supplies for around 40 million people throughout Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.

The government of Argentina declared a state of water emergency for the Paraná basin in July 2021. Meanwhile, the government of Uruguay declared an agricultural emergency in October 2022.

Experts are linking the dry conditions to the atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon “La Niña”. During this phenomenon, colder than normal ocean temperatures are seen in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, causing knock-on impacts on temperature, rainfall levels and even cyclone activity worldwide. One of these impacts is the reduction of rainfall across South America.

La Niña events normally occur every five years or so. But, since 2019, the planet has seen an unusual “triple dip” of three consecutive La Niña years, driving a prolonged low rainfall across South America.

Agricultural drought

While La Niña is a well-established driver of the prolonged drought across central South America, climate change can also impact rainfall levels. In this study, the authors assess whether human-induced climate change contributed to the low rainfall. 

The study focuses on a region encompassing southern Brazil, central and northern Argentina, Uruguay and southern Bolivia over October-December 2022. This period is the beginning of South America’s rainfall season and is important for determining crop health and productivity for the coming year, the authors note.

There are many ways of defining drought. For example, hydrological drought focuses on the amount of rainfall a region receives, while pluvial droughts focus on surface and groundwater flows. This study focuses on agricultural drought, which captures the response of rainfall on soil moisture conditions, and is the most relevant for crop health.

The maps below show the standardised precipitation index – a measure related to soil moisture – for October-December 2022, relative to the 1980-2010 average. Each map shows a different dataset. The study area is outlined in blue, and the crosses indicate nine rainfall gauges in the region. Darker colours indicate more intense drought levels.

To put the heatwave into its historical context and determine how unlikely it was, the authors analysed a time series of observational rainfall data over 40 years. While they find a trend of reduced rainfall over the past 40 years, they note that this could be expected from natural variability in the region.

For the region, the October-December 2022 low rainfall event has a return period of 20 years, meaning it has a 5% chance of occurrence in any given year. Meanwhile, the event is less likely at the nine individual rainfall gauges, with return times of up to one every 50 years.

Attribution

Attribution is a fast-growing field of climate science that aims to identify the “fingerprint” of climate change on extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and droughts. To conduct attribution studies, scientists use models to compare the world as it is today to a “counterfactual” world without human-caused climate change. This study aims to distinguish the “signal” of climate change in central South American rainfall.

The models used in this study show a wetting trend across South America over the past 40 years – the opposite of the trend observed in most weather records. Dr Frederieke Otto – senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London and co-author of the study – tells Carbon Brief that this drying trend is “not strong” and is “mainly within natural variability”.

The authors conclude that “we cannot attribute the low rainfall to climate change”. However, they emphasise that while climate did not impact the rainfall signal, it could have affected the drought in other ways.

(These findings are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, previous attribution studies have published the methods used in the analysis.)

A separate study conducted by the World Weather Attribution in December 2022 found that the heatwave in December 2022 Argentina was made 60 times more likely due to climate change.

Otto told a press briefing that the intense heat can cause evapotranspiration to increase, which means that “less water is available to be taken up by soils”. This is likely to have worsened the agricultural drought, she says.

Meanwhile, the study suggests that Amazon deforestation could also impact South American rainfall. Prof Paola Arias – professor at Colombia’s Environmental School of the University of Antioquia and co-author on the study, explained that atmospheric moisture from the southern Amazon is responsible for 20% of the rainfall that falls over South America. She added that deforestation reached record highs in 2022 – which could have contributed to the decrease in rainfall over South America.

Source: Part of an article by Carbon Brief


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