Brazil faces the worst drought in 80 years

Young boy carries water to his home in northeastern Brazil
© K Martinko

Unless the desperately needed rain arrive, São Paulo residents are being warned to "prepare for a collapse like they've never seen before."

Brazil is a country with 12 percent of the world’s fresh water supply and just 3 percent of its population, but it is at risk of running dry. Brazil is currently in the midst of the worst drought it has seen in eighty years, and there’s no sign of it letting up.

In the southern state of São Paulo, where 44 million people live, at least 14 million have been affected by the lack of water. There are days when people come home from work, turn on their taps, and nothing comes out.

Flávia de Souza Carvalho told the Washington Post, “We can’t shower, wash dishes, do laundry. I have a sink full of dishes because there’s no water coming out of the tap.”

Water has been scarce in the south for the past ten months, ever since the last rainy season produced only 40 percent of the usual amount of rain and failed to replenish adequately the rivers and reservoirs on which São Paulo depends. Satellite images from NASA show the significant difference in the depth of water reservoirs from August 2013 to August 2014.

In the arid northeastern region, drought has been an ongoing problem for many decades, although this year is the worst. An 86-year-old farmer told Reuters that he has lost 50 cows to heat exhaustion:

“I have never seen a drought like this. Everything has dried up.”

Being the northeast, however, which is known for its poverty and often mocked, if not ignored, by the much richer south, it’s not surprising that the drought hasn't received any serious attention until it started to affect São Paulo, the country’s economic engine. When I lived in the northeastern city of Recife eight years ago, there were many days when no water came through the taps -- something that is only just starting to happen in São Paulo homes. People would scramble to fill their water tanks because they never knew how long it would be until the water came back on.

Women washing clothes in northeastern Brazil© K Martinko

Many Brazilians blame the current drought on lack of government foresight. Brazil does not have a culture of water conservancy, since it’s a resource that always seemed limitless. There is widespread opinion that the government has failed to address the severity of the drought, and still refuses to admit that rations are necessary in São Paulo, despite the fact that 29 other cities have implemented water rationing.

The government is also implicated in the serious and sobering connection to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which reduces the number of trees evaporating moisture into the air. Reuters reported:

“Deforestation increased by 29 percent in the last officially recorded period [and] a survey produced using satellite imaging showed that the Amazon lost 5,891 square kilometres, or 2,275 square miles, of forests in that period, an area almost five times the size of the city of New York.”

It’s absolutely necessary that the Brazilian government implement and enforce policies for the preservation the Amazon -- “if they want to prevent São Paulo from becoming a desert,” says Antonio Nobre, a leading climate scientist.

In the meantime, unless the south gets the rain it desperately needs, the president of Brazil’s Water Regulatory Agency, Vicente Andreu, warns that São Paulo residents should prepare for a “collapse like we’ve never seen before.”

Brazil faces the worst drought in 80 years
Unless the desperately needed rain arrive, São Paulo residents are being warned to "prepare for a collapse like they've never seen before."

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