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November 12, 2009 – Original Source: Inter Press Service

BUENOS AIRES – The persistent drought affecting some 90 percent of Argentine territory has slain cattle in the hundreds of thousands and caused forest fires, drastic restrictions on water use and local disputes over water.

The area around Tostado, a town in the northeastern province of Santa Fe, is one of the worst hit. Over the last two years, heat and drought have silently killed off cattle and bankrupted farmers on small and medium sized ranches.

"This area normally gets between 800 and 900 mm of rainfall a year, but in 2008 it got 344 mm, and this year it has had less than 340," veterinarian Felipe Brizuela, the head of the Regional Economic Council of Tostado, told IPS.

"We had 974,000 head of cattle in the 9 de Julio district alone, and now we have less than 500,000. We have an inadequate reservoir and our water supply comes from the Salado river," but the adjacent province of Santiago del Estero, which controls the river flow, "virtually cut off supply, and in 10 days we will have none," he predicted.

Under an agreement between the two provinces, Santiago del Estero is supposed to supply the northwestern districts of Santa Fe with three cubic metres per second of water from the Salado river via a makeshift aqueduct. But in recent weeks, the supply has been only half that amount.

That is because there is a water shortage in Santiago del Estero too, where around a thousand small farmers grow alfalfa along the course of the river. If the authorities increase the water supply to Santa Fe it could be catastrophic for the livelihood of these small producers.

Tostado Mayor Enrique Fedele said the situation is critical. Two-thirds of the cattle have died, and unemployment has climbed to 50 percent. The municipal government this month declared a "social emergency." As well as a lack of water, the area is suffering unbearably high temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius.

"It’s really terrible. I used to have 100 horses and now I have only 15. They took my cows and goats," Armando Bustos, a farmer in the Toledo area, told IPS. "I don’t plan to kill myself because I love life, but four farmers around here have committed suicide because they had so few animals left," he said.

According to the South American Climatology Laboratory, nearly 90 percent of Argentina’s territory is affected by drought to a greater or lesser extent. The National Meteorological Service reported that so far this year, maximum temperatures have been between one and two degrees higher than average.

Experts say the severe drought is caused by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the warm phase of a cyclical climate phenomenon, due to higher surface water temperatures in the eastern and central tropical Pacific, which drives climate effects that are felt in many regions of the world.

A report by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) indicates that about one-third of Argentina’s 32 million hectares of arable land is suffering the impact of the drought.

Ten provinces are the worst hit: Chaco, Santiago del Estero, Tucumán, La Rioja, Catamarca, Córdoba, and Santa Fe in the north and San Luis, La Pampa and Buenos Aires in the central and eastern parts of the country.

In some places the authorities have declared a water emergency and have restricted water use by rationing mains supply. People in certain districts of Córdoba and the neighbouring province of San Luis have been drinking untreated water, causing outbreaks of gastroenteritis and other illnesses.

In western Chaco, cattle are dying by the hundreds every day. So far this year, 200,000 animals have been lost, according to the provincial authorities. The drought there has dragged on for four years, and many farmers have gone bankrupt and have had to migrate to the cities.

In San Luis, Córdoba, Catamarca and La Rioja, the drought has triggered forest fires. In Córdoba alone more than 40,000 hectares have gone up in flames this year, and the water shortage is fuelling conflicts between districts in the province.

This week, heckling and the occasional fist fight broke out in the town of Salsipuedes, in Córdoba, over water distribution.

The authorities had sent out water trucks, because half the groundwater wells that normally supply the town’s 12,000 people were dry, and water in the rest was only 35 percent of the usual level. The conflict arose when people from nearby areas also came to collect water from the trucks, and there was not enough for all.
A police guard to accompany the water trucks on their distribution routes was ordered, as a preventive measure.

The Salsipuedes authorities fear the town may be left without any water at all in one or two weeks’ time.

Water in the small reservoir at La Quebrada, which supplies the town of Villa Carlos Paz in another area of Córdoba, has a normal depth of 34 metres but this now stands at 23 metres. And the San Roque lake which supplies the provincial capital is seven metres below its normal level.

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