Only Aggressive Environmental Measures Can Prevent Another Imminent Water Crisis in Brazil

Photograph Source: Carlos Ebert – CC BY 2.0

While much of the Western United States is currently experiencing extreme drought-like conditions, Brazil is about to face its own water crisis. In Brazil, though, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is directly causing diminished rainfall, compromising the country’s power grid system. The majority of the electricity produced and consumed in the country comes from hydroelectric power, about 65% in total. Also, this has interrupted the water supply and upended the nation’s agricultural industry – all of which will clash with an already weakened economy in the coming months. This ever-growing problem, aggravated by the impacts of climate change, can only be mitigated if bold environmental actions are enacted right now.

This year, Brazil recorded its lowest rainfall in the past 91 years, which has left most the country’s water reservoirs depleted. In fact, its largest reservoir subsystem, located in the Midwest and Southeast regions, is only 33% full compared to an average water volume of about 64% at this time of the year. To make matters worse, this subsystem is also responsible for 70% of the electric power generation capability for the area.

In light of this situation specialists now predict an impeding collapse of the Brazilian power grid. Without full reservoirs the hydroelectric plants will not be able to produce energy. Additionally, millions of Brazilians living in highly dense urban settings in the Southeast may lose access to water as well. In part because water consumption in those areas is 70% higher than for those living in similar urban settings in the North.

The drought is also impacting an intricate hydraulic system that feeds millions of acres of farmland across the country. In fact, the grain harvest for the 2019-2020 season in the South was 28.7% smaller than the total harvested during the same time period in 2018. The 2019-2020 drought season, however, was milder compared to the one that is unfolding this year. As a result, the country’s agribusiness, which in 2020 represented about 27% of Brazil’s GDP, stands to lose millions of dollars again this year.

The economic impact of Brazil’s fragile power system is also becoming a more complicated problem. For one, consumers will pay more for electricity because the government has increased taxes on all types of energy consumed during high-peak periods. At the same time, the energy crisis is likely to put pressure on Brazil’s inflation rates and raise food prices. These stresses could worsen an already dwindling economy devastated by the pandemic.

This is not the first time that Brazil has dealt with a water crisis. Between 2012 to 2015, the state of Sao Paulo, with some 46 million inhabitants, experienced one of its worst droughts. During those three consecutive years of scorching temperatures and below average rainfall, two of the state’s main water reservoirs had only reached an abysmal 5% and 15% capacity in each. Water became so scarce that people living in the poorer suburban areas of the state had only two hours a day to collect and store water from their faucets.

Another major drought in 2001 left almost the entire country in the dark. The so-called ‘Blackout Crisis’ was avoided after a concerted national campaign to ration energy. Back then, hydroelectric power comprised 80% of Brazil’s power grid. Today, it makes up about 65% because over the past two decades Brazil’s energy matrix has become more diversified, adding another 10% natural gas, 9% biomass, 9% wind, 2% petroleum, 2.5% nuclear, 3.3% coal, and 1% solar.

Despite this varied energy matrix, most Brazilian metropolitan areas still rely heavily on hydroelectric power. Although there are 217 large-scale hydroelectric power plants and 1,125 small and medium-sized others spread across the country, alternative energy options available are regionally produced and may not be connected to the country’s intricate hydroelectric power grid system’s distribution. Therefore, the expectation is that there will be energy production problems in the coming months.

Unlike in 2001 the Brazilian government has tapped into thermoelectricity as another source of energy and authorized the activation of some of its thermoelectric plants, which operate by burning either oil or natural gas, adding to the climate change disaster. In fact, dependence on these plants has increased by 60% this year.

Despite the imminent water crisis, Brazil’s hydraulic capability is extensive as the nation possesses the world’s largest drinking water reserve, about 14%. Also, because of topographical elevation variations formed during different stages of tectonic activity across the South-American Platform between 10 and 6 million years ago, 12 watersheds have emerged from innumerous smaller and medium sized rivers, which are mainly fed by rainwater during the summer months.

Brazil also has two of the world’s largest aquifers, one of which is the Greater Amazon Aquifer System (SAGA by its Portuguese acronym). SAGA occupies an area that is more than 60% of the entire Brazilian territory, which alone could supply the entire planet for 250 years, according to one expert, Francisco Abreu, a geography professor at the University of Pará.

“The greatness of the Amazon [rainforest] fundamentally depends on the availability of water [from SAGA],” he explained in an interview to the National Radio Agency. “If you think about the meaning of this water and the meaning of the Amazon for the country and for the world, then you understand that this water is something extremely, extremely important,” he added. In essence, the aquifer and the forest depend on each other to exist.

With such a vast water system, it is hard to imagine extreme droughts in Brazil. But they are indeed happening every year with more frequency and intensity. The question is why.

“The planet is sick! It needs to be reforested,” famed Brazilian environmental scientist Antonio Nobre told National Geographic contributor Paulina Chamorro recently. Nobre used the ‘biotic bomb theory,’ to explain his logic, which is based on the idea that rain in the equatorial region is linked to forests. “If you cut out the forest, the rain ends,” he concluded.

In his 2014 report “The Future Climate of Amazonia,” Nobre wrote that the Amazon forest works like a refrigeration system whose trees retain large quantities of water. In fact, a 65-foot (20 meter) canopy tree can pump some 290 thousand gallons (1,100 liters) of water into the atmosphere in a single day. With the Equatorial heat averaging 80 F they transpire and release moisture into the air. The suspended moisture let out by trillions of trees creates a gigantic “flying river” – larger than the Amazon River itself. Then, in the summer, winds from the Northeast push this aerial river to the west where it collides with the Andes Mountains, which subsequently forces it towards neighboring countries, as well as the Midwest, Southeast and South regions of Brazil, dumping torrential rains along the way. This is one reason why Brazil is not a desert like Australia, Nobre explained.

However, with the Amazon being systematically deforested this rain cycle has been altered, causing increasingly severe droughts every year. In May 2021, the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest soared 67% compared to the same period last year – a record since 2015. In fact, the areas that have suffered successive dry periods are precisely those irrigated by the aforementioned “flying river.” Without the Amazon’s humidity, the Midwest, Southeast and South regions, where most of the country’s agricultural sector is located, are drying up.

Ironically, the same agricultural industry that is suffering from these dry conditions is also causing it. That’s because the deforestation of the Amazon is done mainly for the expansion of agrobusiness, especially for ranching and logging. In the meantime, the drought is also causing more intense fires in the Midwest and North regions of the country.

The combined effects of deforestation and climate change are devastating Brazil’s rain cycle, intensifying drought seasons and putting millions of lives at risk. Without significant and aggressive measures, we could be witnessing the extinction of the Amazon rainforest as we know it and the transformation of Brazil into a desert.

In order to counter this environmental catastrophe, the first step is to stop deforestation of the Amazon immediately by implementing aggressive environmental legislation and regulations. Brazil could use its own “Green New Deal” to overhaul its energy system and diversifying to more solar and wind power. This could also create millions of jobs for those currently involved in illegal extraction activities and destruction of the Amazon.

Environmentalist Nobre also suggested that Brazilians should replant trillions of trees that have been removed from the forest, “to restore the Earth’s ecosystems.”

Finally, it is essential for Brazil to modernize its agribusinesses. Like in Denmark and Japan this sector needs to move away from the Big Ag business model by using less land, by turning toward local farming to reduce the carbon footprint – largely created from deforestation for ranching and logging — and lessen food waste. Also, by developing more efficient irrigation systems the agribusiness sector could save millions of gallons of water each year.

It is only a matter of time before Brazil’s imminent water crisis explodes into a full-scale catastrophe.

Anna Buss is a 2018-2019 fellow journalist with the New Economy Coalition’s Reporting Project, focusing on stories about climate change from a solutions perspective. She’s also the Assistant Producer of the daily news and political radio and TV show ‘Rising Up With Sonali,’ on the Pacifica Radio Network and Free Speech TV.