An extreme year

June 8, 2012

2012 is the year of extremes in northern Brazil. Two regions of the country’s vast north suffered their worst natural disasters in recorded history, but they were opposite disasters, with floods in the Amazon and drought in the northeast. Reuters photographers Ricardo Moraes and Bruno Kelly covered both stories. Their contrasting accounts follow:

Ricardo Moraes writes from northeastern Bahia State:

People suffering without water but full of hope, was what I found in the state of Bahia, facing its worst drought in half a century.

We flew to Salvador da Bahia and immediately left for Maracas, one of the towns most affected by the drought. We stopped for the night in Feira de Santana, where we saw women and children drawing buckets of green water from a drying reservoir to give to their livestock. Since there were only women we couldn’t approach them too closely, as our presence without their men nearby would be disrespectful, according to their culture.

As we continued our trip at dawn, a fine rain covered us nearly all the way to Maracas, one of the towns most affected, and our intended destination. The rain made me nervous to think that maybe the drought had just ended, before I had a chance to photograph it. We were told that the misty rain was normal in the 1,000-meter altitude (3,280 feet) of Maracas, and that it wouldn’t help relieve the drought. In the countryside it hadn’t rained in the past three years, not even a mist.

Outside the city we found a family harvesting the last of their surviving tomatoes to feed to their animals. They had lost 90% of this year’s crop and this little that was left wasn’t suitable for eating.

At a nearby ranch we found a dead ox, one of many lost to the drought. Those that hadn’t died were let loose in a nature reserve where there was still a little pasture and water.

In the afternoon we reached a village 70 km (43 miles) out called Port Alegre, and were surprised by a glimpse of hope; a rainbow arced across the sky above.

As we looked for the best angle to photograph the rainbow, we met Zé da Balsa, a local who took us to see what was left of the river where he made his living as a barge captain.

Zé da Balsa earned a living for the past 17 years transporting cars from one bank of the Contas River to the other. The river is now completely dry, ending his livelihood and those of many other residents who depended on the water to fish, irrigate their plantations and maintain their livestock. It was incredible to walk and even drive across the bed of a river that used to be so wide, deep and full of life, and now is just sand and eroded banks.

The next day I went to the region known as Capivari and visited the Kaeta settlement. As I entered the village I met a man carrying water, so I accompanied him to his house where we spoke a while. Joel Moraes, who made me proud to share the same last name, told me of his hard times during the three rainless years. He and everyone else in the region expected rain to come every October, the usual beginning of the rainy season, but as he described the last few years, “October came, October went, October came, October went, and nothing.”

Joel’s wife was preparing lunch with a group of friends. They spent hours cleaning an ox stomach, in a process that meant cutting it into pieces and boiling it clean. In another house nearby a family was cooking an ox head with rice and beans. They talked about how hard it is for them to have a balanced diet, and that they rarely eat protein. Anemia is common.

When it came time to leave and say goodbye to Joel, he didn’t accept my goodbye, and said, “It’s too soon!”

We wanted to continue the coverage but he insisted on inviting us to lunch. I knew it would be a great insult to refuse, but after watching the preparation that was partially done in a paint bucket over the fire, I thought it was better to avoid lunch, and I needed to keep photographing. Joel understood my rush and said, “But you’ll come back soon and visit, right? We like you and hope you come back.”

I was moved by the way they received us and insisted on sharing what little they had. I said, “Joel, one day, God willing, I’ll be back, and next time there will be a lot of rain and we’ll celebrate the abundance together.”

Joel smiled and he answered, “God willing.”

We visited other regions and a hamlet that gets its water from a rock pool that filled during a mild rainfall last November. That pool will run out soon, and no more rain is in sight. All the people I spoke to compared this drought with another historic one in 1993, but they always finished by saying that the current one is worse.

That’s what I saw in Bahia, people waiting for God to send rain, people who struggle, people who suffer, but receive strangers with open arms. People who share the little they have.

Bruno Kelly writes from the Amazon:

I moved to Manaus in 2009, the year of the Great Flood when the Amazon’s rivers rose to a new historic record, beating the one in 1953. At that time I assumed that I wouldn’t see that phenomenon again for the next 20 or 30 years.

Today, the level of the Rio Negro that bathes the state capital is almost at 30 meters (98.4 ft), higher than the 2009 maximum of 29.77, and it’s still rising.

In this flood at least three whole cities are completely covered by the water, Careiro da Varzea, Barreirinha and Anama, where I spent three days photographing.

Residents find a way to get by, using what is known here as “cabocla” engineering, or mestizo ingenuity. The best example of this is the marimba, which is the construction of a platform or raised floor inside their houses which allows families to remain inside and ride out all but the worst of floods.

With the river rising so quickly, it became inevitable for most families to abandon their homes for higher ground, or even for distant cities.

In the countryside the impact is even greater as crops of jute and banana were completely lost and cattle have to be evacuated on makeshift log rafts.

In the city as well as in the countryside, transportation is being done in canoes, which makes it difficult to position myself to photograph from the best angles. The solution is to establish a rapport with the canoe captain, because the strong currents that run along the submerged streets make it impossible to remain stationary.

I had to be very careful when entering houses, with the rotten boards and the roof almost at head height.

While the situation is frightening, I saw children and youths playing in the water that fills the city in a totally spontaneous reaction. The intense Amazon heat provokes scenes like this on almost every corner, especially on a sunny Sunday.

In Manaus, the water brings trash into homes and raw sewage in the water leaves a very strong stench especially in neighborhoods that line the banks of streams. Residents share their homes with uninvited venomous animals, and their lives that were never easy before, get even worse.

The rise and fall of the rivers are common occurrences in the Amazon, but what is frightening is the intensity with which the water rushes in, breaking records in intervals of time much shorter  than in the past, when it took decades.

If the Amazon is truly the planet’s lung and what happens in it affects the world, how should we interpret this string of great floods?

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