Most years, when rains are normal, four Olympic swimming pools worth of water passes each second through the mammoth Itaipú Dam, churning out electricity for both Paraguay and Brazil and allowing ships and barges to export grains as far away as China.

Since 2019, however, rainfall levels have dropped sharply—not just here, but in much of the heart of South America—and left a vast swath baking in drought. Dozens of hydroelectric dams in Brazil have sputtered, driving up energy prices there. And the river transport of soybeans, the regional cash cow, has been severely hampered in the grain hub of Rosario, Argentina.

But it is Paraguay, a landlocked country of seven million encircled by giant neighbors and dependent on two large rivers, that has been hardest hit, say government officials, climate scientists and the business people who depend on the waterways. The dry season occurs annually, but this region hasn’t suffered through a drought this extreme since the 1940s, they say.

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