For three of Brazil’s most populated states, severe drought will soon necessitate water rationing. For Brazilian citizens, this has led to major frustration, not only with their plight but with their governments, which have consistently denied this imminent water crisis.
As recently as January 15, Bloomberg reports, the governor of Sao Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, promised that water rationing would not be necessary.
This week, the state’s water utility said it plans to ration water five days per week if heavy rains don’t come.
Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo – which account for 40 percent of the country’s population – all face restrictions on water use. However, citizens have been reporting water cut-offs since early last year.
“The water has gone off almost every night since June,” Karen Fernandes Mirante, a college student living in Sao Paulo, told the Los Angeles Times, “so we try to fill up whatever containers we can before then.”
“There’s been no water in our pipes now for a month,” Soraya Rodriguez, a Sao Paulo resident, told BBC in November. “It’s not as bad as this in every community but we’ve had water rationing here since February.”
Authorities have denied that shut-offs are occurring.
Sao Paulo, the capital of Sao Paulo, is Brazil’s largest city and one of the largest cities in the world. It contains about half of the state’s 40 million citizens and is suffering through its worst drought in 84 years. Whereas the rest of the country has abundant fresh water supplies, Sao Paulo depends on six rain-fed reservoirs that are dangerously near to running dry. Bloomberg reports that Cantareira and Alto Tiete, two of its largest reservoirs, are now down to 5.1 and 10.7 percent capacity respectively. These two reservoirs alone serve 11 million people, and Cantareira will be depleted in less than 150 days without a major rainfall.
The lack of water in Brazil not only poses an existential threat, it is also harming the country’s economy. Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo produce 53 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product. One-third of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil, and half of all arabica, but in the first three months of 2014, the lack of moisture devastated the crops. Arabica coffee doubled in price as a result, and speculators say prices could rise to $3 per pound this year.
But Where Has the Rain Gone?
Scientists have speculated that deforestation may play a key role, as fewer trees means less vapor in the air, and less vapor means less clouds. The death of Brazil’s “flying rivers” – characteristic of the once lush rainforest – is an issue Planet Experts covered back in September.
Climatologist Antonio Nobre supports this view. “There is a hot dry air mass sitting down here [in Sao Paulo] like an elephant,” he told BBC, “and nothing can move it.”
The decimation of the Atlantic forest and continued deforestation in the Amazon has sapped the region’s moisture, he said. “That’s what we have learned – that the forests have an innate ability to import moisture and to cool down and to favor rain… If deforestation in the Amazon continues, Sao Paulo will probably dry up.”
This deforestation-induced climate change, however, has been exacerbated by a government that has both mismanaged states’ resources and failed to address the crisis promptly or transparently.
“Rains this year were as much as 60 percent less than in the driest years we have any records of,” said Samuel Barreto, specialist for water security in Brazil at the Nature Conservancy. “But even before that happened, authorities here failed to address pressing issues on both the supply and demand sides.”
Juliana Serillo, an economist at the macroeconomics consultancy MB Associados, told Bloomberg that there has been “a lack of transparency at every level of government” throughout the present crisis.
Consistent failures to adequately address the crisis, dismissing fears of extended drought and perhaps even restricting water flow without alerting the populace have now formed a pile of problems three of Brazil’s largest governments can no longer avoid.
Maria Cecilia Brito is part of the umbrella organisation Alliance for Waters, which is belatedly trying to raise public awareness about the chronic shortages.
“People here were brought up to believe that water was a resource that would never end,” said Maria Cedilla Brito back in November. Cedilla is a member of the Alliance for Waters organization, which tries to raise public awareness about the crisis. “We were taking more water from the sources than those sources were able to replenish through natural means.”
Now the governor of Minas Gerais says citizens must reduce their water consumption by 30 percent or risk mandatory cutoffs. The reservoirs that supply water to the state’s Belo Horizonte metropolitan area have declined by 40 percent since January 2014.