Rain will not extinguish Amazon fires for weeks, weather experts say

A tract of the Amazon jungle burning is seen in Canarana, Mato Grosso state, Brazil August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Landau

By Jake Spring

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Weak rainfall is unlikely to extinguish a record number of fires raging in Brazil’s Amazon anytime soon, with pockets of precipitation through Sept. 10 expected to bring only isolated relief, according to weather data and two experts.

The world’s largest tropical rainforest is being ravaged as the number of blazes recorded across the Brazilian Amazon has risen 79% this year through Aug. 25, according to the country’s space research agency.

The fires are not limited to Brazil, with at least 10,000 square kilometers (about 3,800 square miles) burning in Bolivia near its border with Paraguay and Brazil.

While Brazil’s government has launched a firefighting initiative, deploying troops and military planes, those efforts will only extinguish smaller blazes and help prevent new fires, experts said. Larger infernos can only be put out by rainfall.

The rainy season in the Amazon on average begins in late September and takes weeks to build to widespread rains.

The rain forecast in the next 15 days is concentrated in areas that need it least, according to Maria Silva Dias, a professor of atmospheric sciences at University of Sao Paulo. Less precipitation is expected in parts of the Amazon experiencing the worst fires, she added.

The far northwest and west of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest will see more rain in coming weeks but the eastern parts will remain very dry, Refinitiv data show.

Even areas with more rain will only get isolated showers, the experts said.

“In some points you could put out some fires, certainly, but these are isolated points, it’s not the whole area,” Dias said.

“The whole area needs it to rain more regularly, and this will only happen further down the line, around October.”

Enough rain has to be concentrated in a short enough period to put out a fire, otherwise, the water will just evaporate, Dias said.

She estimated it would take at least 20 millimeters of rain within 1-2 hours to put out a forest fire, with more required for more intense blazes.

The state of Acre, in the west of Brazil on the border with Peru, is expected to get more fire relief from rains than most of the Amazon. The number of fires in Acre has more than doubled so far this year compared with the year-ago period, with 90 fires registered from Aug. 21-25 alone, according to INPE data.

The western half of the state will get 57.6 mm over the next 15 days, while the east of the state will get 33.5 mm, Refinitiv data show.

Rondonia and southern Amazonas state are expected to get 15-29 mm across the area in the next 15 days.

“In some areas it could reduce the fires, not in general,” said Matias Sales a meteorologist for Brazil weather information firm Climatempo.

The 15-day rain forecast is at or below the average for this period in previous years, according to Climatempo.

The eastern Amazon will stay dry over the next 15 days, with little or no rain in parts of Mato Grosso, Para and Tocantins where fires are up 54% to 161% compared with last year.

The dry season, which varies among parts of the Amazon but runs several months up to September, has been particularly dry this year, Dias said. Mato Grosso has been parched by a cold front that hit earlier in the year, she said.

Dias said she hoped the military would help to prevent new fires but putting out existing fires is a tougher task.

“The small fires will be extinguished but the big fires will go on for a while,” she said.

(Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Richard Chang)

‘Water is life’: unexpected rainfall revives Iraq’s historic marshlands

Iraqi Marsh Arab girls walk near buffaloes at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By Raya Jalabi

CHIBAYISH MARSHES, Iraq (Reuters) – This time last year, most of Iraq’s historic marshlands were dry, desiccated by upstream damming and a chronic lack of rainfall.

Now, local farmers are counting their blessings after unexpected heavy rainfall at the end of 2018 caused the dams to overflow by early January and water came gushing back to the wetlands in southeastern Iraq.

For Yunus Khalil, a farmer raising water buffalo in the central marsh, the lack of water meant he had to sell most of his herd at a loss last year.

“We were terrified the water wouldn’t come back,” Khalil said. “It would’ve been the end for us.”

The marshes, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden and named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2016, are experiencing their highest water levels since they were reclaimed in 2003, said Jassim al-Asadi, southern director of local NGO Nature Iraq and a native of the marshlands, which stretch to the Iran border.

“God knows how much we suffered last year,” Khalil said. “He protected us.”

Saddam Hussein accused the area’s inhabitants, the Marsh Arabs, of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran and later drained the marshes – which before then had stretched across more than 3,700 square miles (9,583 sq km) – to flush out rebels.

Many residents fled, but after Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, parts of the marshland were reflooded and around 250,000 Marsh Arabs have cautiously trickled back.

Many had moved to farmland in nearby provinces, or went to live in exile in Iran. Their years away brought a change to the vibrant local culture, residents say, and more conservative norms, particularly regarding the role of women who have long worked alongside men in the marshes.

“You used to hear women singing as they pushed their boats through the marshes at dawn,” said Taher Mehsin, a fishermen in his late 60s. “Now, some of the men won’t let their women out of the house.”

NEW PROBLEMS

The area has been home to the Marsh Arabs for millennia, and water is essential to maintaining their way of life.

Though many were eager to return home after two decades away, life in the marshes is tough and revolves around fishing and raising water buffalo. The few schools and government-run health clinics are miles away from the open water, where many people live without electricity.

Residents have to make daily trips on long wooden boats to buy bottled water for themselves and their families as the surrounding waters are too salty to drink.

An Iraqi Marsh Arab man sits on a boat at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

An Iraqi Marsh Arab man sits on a boat at the Chebayesh marsh in Dhi Qar province, Iraq April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Years of low water levels have caused other problems, including less tall grass for the buffalo to graze on, and a drop in the variety of fish.

The local carp, previously local fishermen’s best seller, hasn’t been seen in the waters here all year. Instead, the fishermen and women now catch just one type of small fish which most don’t recall having seen until recently.

After casting their nets the previous night, they haul their take at dawn to local buyers, who are currently paying around $2.50 (3,000 dinars) a kilo after haggling; a 50 percent drop in price compared to 2017.

“What else can we do?” said Mehsin as he pushed his boat out from the shore, having netted $10 (12,000 Iraqi dinars) for his day’s take.

“Water is life here. Fish and animals can’t live without it, and neither can we.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Susan Fenton)