The number of cities across Brazil under state of emergency by the federal government on account of a long period of drought now total 872, with the Northeast being the most severely affected region. The state of Paraíba is home to the largest number of drought-stricken municipalities—198 reported the problem to the authorities.
Professor Sérgio Koide, from the University of Brasília (UnB) Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, says the water crisis is sparked by the climate, but also argues that poor planning makes the safety gap between supply and demand alarmingly narrow. “With good planning and investment, an administration can be successful even in face of scarce resources,” he argued.
Water shortage risks arise, he believes, when the goals outlined fail to be met, bringing the supply increasingly closer to the demand. “In this case, new plans must be devised in advance, with the necessary measures adopted—like investment in construction works—in order to prevent shortages.”
The states of Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará are also experiencing water shortages—the cities where state of emergency has been declared total 154 and 140, respectively. According to meteorologist Morgana Almeida, head of weather forecast at the National Institute of Meteorology (INMET), the current state of affairs comes as a result of the effects brought by El Niño. “We must check the rearview mirror. El Niño is a phenomenon that's been taking place for five years and hit its climax in the last three, driving the semiarid climate of the Northeast to a situation of exceptional drought, and this causes a direct impact on the reservoirs serving the cities in the region.”
Ceará state, for instance, has been forced to tackle consecutive drought spells since 2011, which has brought the volume of water stored down to 8.8% of the reservoir capacity, the lowest in over 20 years. Despite the bleak circumstances, a rationing program has not been implemented in Ceará.
In Paraíba, the number of cities facing drought-related water supply issues rose 60% in a year. According to official data, the amount of cities under a rationing program was 102 last year. This amount has skyrocketed to 198.
Another region struggling under the effects of El Niño is Brazil's Central-West. The Federal District, where the capital city Brasília is located, declared state of emergency late in January, when major shortages faced the Barragem do Rio Descoberto reservoir and pulled its level down below 20 percent. Unlike what happened in Ceará, a rationing schedule was introduced, which covered 1.8 million people.
The drought, coupled with the decline in the level of Santa Maria—the region's second biggest reservoir—also brought the central area of Brasília under the rationing program. Only the Esplanade of Ministries and public hospitals were left out of the plan.
Professor Sérgio Koide explains that local water utility CAESB had been aware that “the demand would threateningly near the supply as of 2005” since 2000. “Broadly speaking, people who work with planning can predict when the risk zone is about to begin, but since planning is long term, and investments high, they're not always carried out.”
The Northeast and Central-West are the most severely affected areas this year, but São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, overcame the biggest water crisis in its history one year ago, an ordeal that began in January, 2014.
The UN has highlighted the importance of an economical administration of water resources. The debate has been marked by such milestones as the introduction in 1992 of the World Water Day, celebrated on March 22, by the UN.
Translated by Fabrício Ferreira