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Water in Brazil: From abundance to scarcity

Different challenges face the country’s 12 drainage areas

Published in 27/10/2018 - 18:50

By Débora Brito Brasília

Ensuring access to quality water for every Brazilian is among the main challenges to face the country’s next leaders. Culturally treated as an infinite, water is among the natural resources showing the most signs they will no longer be available after so many human interventions to the environment and the effects of climate change.

The impact is felt differently throughout the country, with issues like scarcity, river springs running dry, and pollution. Specialists warn that the problems could be aggravated if urgent measures are not taken and if society does not change its perception as well as its behavior towards natural resources.

Brazil has 12 drainage areas dealing with different challenges preserving water availability and quality. A survey by the Environment Ministry shows that, in the drainage areas covering the country’s northern region, the impact have chiefly come as a result of the expansion in the generation of hydroelectric energy. In the Central-West, the expansion of the boundaries of agriculture has posed the biggest difficulties in the conversation of water resources. The South and the Southeast, in turn, are experiencing a water deficit, and pollution has also proved to be a major issue in the Southeast.

At global level, the mission is to curb the increase in temperature—a factor that generates heat waves and extreme drought spells that make a negative impact on water availability. A recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that, if the global temperature rises above 1.5ºC, more than 350 million people will be exposed across the world to severe drought spells by 2050.

Amazônia
In the drainage areas covering the country’s northern region, the impact have chiefly come as a result of the expansion in the generation of hydroelectric energy -  Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

Brazil: The abundance myth

“Previous generations were raised with the myth of a country with enormous supplies of water, hearing that water would be a chronic problem only in the semiarid climates of the Northeast. Obviously, since 2013—when we faced our first crisis, the huge black-out could actually be called dry-out, as it did not come merely as a result of an electrical issue—it has been clear that the Southeast and the Central-West face concrete water availability problems, made all the worse in the last two years,” said Ricardo Novaes, water resources specialist with WWF-Brasil.

The specialist explains that the crisis also stems from poor water management, especially during dry periods—a trend not likely to change, as rainfall has kept low since early this spring.

“We have signs we might see a really complicated scenario in the coming summer, maybe the year after, in São Paulo, maybe the whole Southeast. Reservoirs are showing levels considerably than they were lower than two years ago, before the 2014 and 2015 crisis,” he stated.

After the severe 2015 crisis in São Paulo, residents in the Federal District also saw their first rationing in the last 30 years due to shortage of water in the main drainage areas feeding the region. For over a year, locals in Brazil’s capital had to cope with no water at all every other day due to a depletion of reserves in the main drainage areas serving the city.

In its rural areas, the government in the Federal District declared state of emergency for agriculture. Back then, losses were estimated to reach $31 million, and corn saw a 70 percent shrinkage in its production, according to official figures.

Alto Paraíso de Goiás (GO) - Fotos aéreas da  queimada do Parque  Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros (Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil)
Known as the cradle of waters, the Central-West region has the typical vegetation of the Cerrado, a biome occupying over 20 percent of the territory, and is currently where the main expansion is seen for agriculture - Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

The cradle of scarce waters

Specialists believe that one of the main causes of the water crisis is inappropriate soil use. The Central-West, for instance, is home to the country’s most important river springs, due to its location in the Planalto Central. Known as the cradle of waters,  the region has the typical vegetation of the Cerrado, a biome occupying over 20 percent of the territory, and is currently where the main expansion is seen for agriculture—which takes up some approximately 70 percent of the water consumed in the country.

As a result of the expansion of agriculture, the Cerrado has virtually half of its are totally devastated. The absence of native vegetation protecting the soil has already taken its toll—made visible by the decrease of river discharge and the scarcity of urban supplies.

According to Isabel Figueiredo, coordinator of the Cerrado and Caatinga program of the Society, Population, and Nature Institute (ISPN) and a member of the Cerrado Network, the quick pace of deforestation has made an impact both in rain frequency—which have further and further sunk in the region—and in the capacity of the soil to absorb and store water underground and return it to the rivers.

“The change in soil use has significantly altered the water cycle, and leads to our having less water in rivers, with aggradation and less raining. So the water cycle is facing a small collapse,” she said.

Forecasts by the Brazilian Climate Change Panel (PBMC) show that in the coming three decades, the Cerrado may see a 1ºC increase in its superficial temperature, after a slip of 10 to 20 percent of rainfall.

“The contribution made by the Cerrado to Brazil’s key drainage areas—like São Francisco, Tocantins, for instance—will face a significant reduction if deforestation is kept at this pace,” Figueiredo added.

She went on to point out that the deforestation in the Cerrado affects not only local communities, which have reported planting difficulties, but also other regions. “Brazil’s biomes and ecosystems are all interconnected. The deforestation in the Cerrado affects rainfall in São Paulo, and deforestation in the Amazon affects rainfall here in the Cerrado,” she explained.

Alto Paraíso de Goiás (GO) - Planta conhecida como Candombá, uma das mais comuns na região do Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros (Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil)
The story of environmental problems includes this flawed perception for a number of reasons: convenience, ignorance, or apathy - Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Misconceptions

A PhD in ecology and the author of a number of books on environmental education, Genebaldo Freire notes that these problems will only be solved when governments and society change their perception about the importance of natural resources for human survival.

“Our perception has been flawed. And we have objective evidence to prove it: we depend on water for everything, and what’s our behavior? Wastage, consumerism, pollution, and deforestation, and everything in a hurry, with a population growing 75 million people every year across the world,” he reported.

There is no safe place on the planet, he argued, adding that, in addition to a flawed perception, water governance is lacking. He also criticized a lack of willingness and skill among politicians to deal with the topic of environmental education.

“The story of environmental problems includes this flawed perception for a number of reasons: convenience, ignorance, or apathy. Environmental education today must be centered on expanding our perception, otherwise, nothing will change,” Freire argued.

Translation: Fabrício Ferreira Edition: Carolina Pimentel / Nira Foster

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