Impact of Amazonian drought will increase in the short term, warns physicist

No precipitation is expected for the immediate horizon in the Amazon area of northern Brazil, even though the rainy season would normally have started by now, according to atmospheric physicist Paulo Artaxo, He said that climate change had left weather models imprecise and outdated, and any projection for when the rainy season would start had become “a shot in the dark”.

The water level at the Rio Negro river, the main tributary to the Amazon, is at the lowest since 1902, according to the Geologic Survey of Brazil, and is still receding. Artaxo said that, even when the rains arrive, it could take up to two months for Amazonian rivers to rise enough to enable normal navigation. The effect is not just internal. International shipping lines are changing their schedules to cope with the changes forced upon domestic river traffic (see below). The drought has forced some soy and corn shipments to be rerouted to other ports to the south.

The drought has meant that CMA CGM and Maersk have advised customers that direct service to the port of Manaus had been suspended. The port is the main transport hub for the upper Amazon basin, sitting on the Rio Negro, near where it meets the Solimoes River to form the Amazon.

A barge that was moving trucks and empty gas tanks has been stuck on a sandbank since last month. The Brazilian federal government has set up a task force to mitigate the impact of the severe drought It has allocated BRL41m ($8.2m) for dredging to re-enable navigation on the river.

According to one report, as many as 90% of the regular vessels on the river are now operating with some kind of restriction in Amazonas, and the state has called for cargo capacity to be halved.

That affects trade to the 30m people living in the region and exports from it. Also impacted are consumer electronics produced in the large free trade zone in Manaus. Officials have warned of possible disruptions to grain exports.

CMA CGM alerted customers on Friday October 20th that conditions had “reached an alarming level”, limiting container vessel access to the port. It added: “As a result, CMA CGM has no other option than to divert its vessels [on the Manaus Shuttle Service] to other ports.”

Vessels would instead discharge cargo for Manaus and Vila do Conde at the ports of Pecem and Fortaleza. CMA CGM had already announced a low-water surcharge in Manaus, beginning September 25th, of $750 per teu, rising to $1,100 per teu from October 25th.

Marsk  meanwhile informed customers that “our feeder provider Alianca declared force majeure, and the cargo on board vessels bound for Manaus will be discharged in alternative ports”.

Neither Maersk nor CMA CGM felt able to predict when the crisis would end. The French line CMA CGM said that the weather conditions that generated the restrictions were unstable, “which does not allow us to accurately provide a forecast of improvement. Cargo onboard these vessels will be shipped to Manaus as soon as the water level allows.” Maersk has been offering a limited alternative transport option that combines truck and barge service between Vila do Conde and Manaus. This does not apply to hazardous and refrigerated cargo.

There were fears that the rainfall deficit in the region could last until the latter half of December, possibly into 2024.

The export hubs in Brazil were reported to be storing record levels of soy, corn and sugar. Exporters had reported delays in coffee shipments due to a tight availability of trucks and containers, while loading waiting times for vessels have also lengthened.

Brazilian ports had already been dealing with high volumes this year, but rains in the south, the largest ever delivery of sugar on the expiration of the October contract in New York, and the diversion of cargoes from northern ports to Santos port because of the Amazonian drought have all increased the logistical headache for the country’s southern ports.

Coffee exporters have found themselves battling with sugar exporters to find containers. Raw sugar is usually shipped in bulk, but pre-refined sugar uses containers. Shipping data provider Datamar said that container use for sugar exports was 86% year on year up until August. The number of containers used for coffee fell 5. On the bulk carrier side, loading time waits have lengthened considerably. Shipping agency Williams said the waiting time at CLI, a main sugar terminal in Santos, nearly doubled to 33 days last week, from 17 days in September. Some sugar shipments scheduled to depart Brazil in October were likely be pushed back to November.

The forecast is for only light rains in the coming days at Santos, with heavier rain expected from October 28th. While any rain will be welcomed in the Amazon, in the south it could slow down throughput. The degree of precipitation will be a factor in how efficiently the port can work through the rest of October and into November.