KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Water storage and river levels are below normal in many areas around the world, raising much concern about the future of agriculture and the availability of water for human consumption and manufacturing. The phenomenon is not just confined to a few areas but is a global problem, impacting areas from Southeast Asia to Australia and from Africa to North and South America. 

Low river levels have affected the shipment of goods and services most recently in the United States and in South America. In the past two years, similar situations have occurred in Europe, Asia and even Central America. The phenomenon is puzzling for many researchers because there are so many areas reporting excessive rain events and serious flooding. What seems to be happening is a redistribution of rainfall partially controlled by such events as El Niño and La Niña, but the problem is more complex.

Our warmer planet has allowed the atmosphere to evaporate larger amounts of moisture than it did decades ago, and that moisture is being suspended in the atmosphere much better than it used to because of the warmer air. Higher humidity is present in many areas, but there are also parts of the world experiencing greater levels of dryness, too. 

The world’s fast-growing population is not helping the situation. The planet is home to more than 8 billion people today and that has increased from 3.3 billion in 1965 and 6 billion in 1999. That has resulted in a huge amount of water being used for a variety of human purposes. We live in a closed ecosystem. The same amount of moisture that always has been confined to the atmosphere, oceans and snowpacks is the same today as it was in the beginning, but it is all about the distribution of that moisture. 

The more our population expands and the warmer the planet gets, the more water storage is likely to become a greater concern. Three years of La Niña also impacted many of the world’s middle latitudes — as is always the case. La Niña events (especially those lasting multiple years) are notorious for reducing rainfall in the mid-latitudes while increasing it in the tropics. El Niño events do the opposite. This year’s transition from La Niña to El Niño eventually will redistribute some of the rainfall, easing drought in North America, Europe and parts of Asia while drying down the tropics. Southern Indonesia and portions of Australia already are drying out and so has northern Brazil. 

Trouble on the Amazon

The Amazon River Basin has been in a record drought this year and water levels on that river have fallen to the point of halting the transportation of goods and services. The river basin is not only responsible for providing water for many communities and transportation, but the basin is also key in producing rain in some of Brazil’s center west and northeastern agricultural areas. Irrigation has never been much of a need in northern Brazil because of its routinely occurring monsoon season that brings waves of rain southward from the Amazon Basin into soybean, corn, cotton, rice, sugar cane and coffee areas. 

Drought in northern Brazil this year is one of the worst seen in modern history, and the same can be said for the drought in North America the past few years and in Western Europe in 2021-23. The green revolution that enables man to genetically alter crops for higher yields has been the saving grace for the ever-expanding population and demand for food. But at the same time, the water supply has become more unreliable with a growing concern about future production potential in areas dependent upon agriculture. 

This year’s drought in Brazil is coupling with an El Niño event and promises to keep rainfall lighter than usual in center west and northeastern parts of the nation in a manner similar to that of 2015-16. Production of many crops was reduced during that spring and summer, and without irrigation some yields were notably below average. The same may occur this year with seasonal rainfall already off to a poor start in Mato Grosso, northern Mato Grosso do Sul and areas from Tocantins into Bahia and northern Minas Gerais. Some of this dry bias will probably last into the heart of the summer in these areas, although some timely rain should evolve in center west Brazil to improve soybean, corn and cotton production potential. Northeastern Brazil may not be so lucky with restricted rainfall expected over a longer period of time. 

Australia began enduring a sudden drought of significance after La Niña abated. Western Australian rainfall has been minimal since mid-September, hurting the production of wheat, barley and canola. The same occurred in Queensland and northern New South Wales earlier this spring and is now underway in South Australia. Each of these areas of dryness will pressure crop production in the next few weeks and months, and the same is occurring in southern Indonesia. 

The good news for North America, Europe and Argentina is in the next few months rainfall is expected to improve in many areas. There will still be parts of North America dealing with drought into 2024, but there’s hope for a better summer season in those areas. 

Meanwhile, the world’s water supply is still of great concern and new ways to store and conserve moisture likely will be instigated in coming decades as the world deals with an ever-increasing population and demand for water. Relief is expected for the Mississippi River Basin in coming months and the same is expected on many of Europe’s major rivers, but relief for the Amazon River may be slower in coming — something that will be more likely in 2024 than in late 2023. 

Drew Lerner is senior agricultural meteorologist with World Weather, Inc. He may be reached at [email protected]. World Weather, Inc. forecasts and comments pertaining to present, past and future weather conditions included in this report constitute the corporation’s judgment as of the date of this report and are subject to change without notice.