Jan 17, 2022

Low Water Level on Parana River Disrupting Shipping Again

Author: Michael Cordonnier/Soybean & Corn Advisor, Inc.

The drought in southern Brazil and Argentina is again having a profound impact on the water level of the Parana River at Rosario, Argentina. The water level was also exceptionally low a year ago at this time, but it improved somewhat over the South American winter season. That improvement has now vanished and the water level is at its lowest point since 1945.

The Parana, meaning "like the sea" in the Tupi-Guarani language spoken by local indigenous peoples, is the second longest river in South America at 4,880 kilometers (3,030 miles) and it transports approximately 80% of Argentina's agricultural exports.

The water level is currently about half its normal height and it may not return to more normal levels until at least March 31st. Cargo ships are being forced to load 30% less gain due to the low water levels. For a Handyman sized vessel, that means 13,000 tons less. For a Panamax sized vessel, that means 16,000 tons less. The vessels must complete their loads at ocean ports such as Bahia Blanca or Necochea, which increases costs.

Local water officials are calling this a "twice in a lifetime event," but it seems to be happening increasingly. Water from the upstream Itaipu Dam was released in 2020 and 2021 to help the flow of the river, but Brazilian officials indicated that water cannot be released from the dam until at least February when the reservoir reaches its maximum level.

The water level on the Parana River is calculated in an arcane fashion. The water height that is reported is compared to a long-ago reference point. On January 1st of this year for example, the height was reported as 36 centimeters above the reference point. As of earlier last week, the height was reported as 22 centimeters below the reference point. The lowest level in history occurred in 1945 when it registered 100 centimeters below the reference point.

The drought is also impacting soybean barges out of Paraguay as well. Barges that would normally go down the Parana River to ports in Argentina are being transferred to the Paraguay River, at least until where the Paraguay and Parana Rivers join. Even on the Paraguay River, barge loads must be reduced by 40% due to low water levels. If rains return to the region, it will take weeks for the water levels of these rivers to return to more normal levels.