Is Brazil facing a water crisis?

Environment | Earth Systems

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published February 12th, 2022

Despite potentially huge water resources, Brazil is increasingly facing more recurrent and severe water crises. An overreliance on surface water resources and decades of mismanagement has left Brazilian water supplies highly vulnerable to variability in precipitation, an issue exacerbated by climate change and rampant deforestation.

Brazil possesses the largest volume of freshwater of any country in the world; 20% of all inland water flowing to the oceans is generated in Brazilian territory and just two-thirds of what flows in the Amazon river could satisfy global water demand. Hence, the idea that Brazil could be facing a water crisis appears absurd, yet much of the country now faces frequent and severe droughts.

Discharges in the Paraná River basin, which accounts for 40% of Brazil’s hydropower capacity, have fallen to their lowest levels in 91 years. | Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr

The most recent drought (late 2021) in Brazil’s south-central region, a region that accounts for 70% of the country’s GDP, has resulted in a 267 kilometres-cubed shortage in water supplies. This shortage has caused the price of key crops, like coffee and soya, to sky-rocket. Furthermore, electricity bills have soared by 130% and fossil fuels are increasingly relied upon to supplement dwindling hydroelectric power returns.

Water forms an integral part of the Brazilian economy, which has the world’s second-largest installed hydropower capacity and supplies 65% of national energy demand. Furthermore, for a nation heavily dependent on agriculture (25% of their GDP), irrigation accounts for 68% of total water consumption (which equates to some 68 billion litres a day). Access to reliable, clean, and cheap freshwater is critical for meeting agricultural, energy, and domestic demands.

Roughly 85% of freshwater is sourced from surface water sources, such as rivers and lakes (rather than groundwater). Surface water availability is a function of relatively short trends in precipitation (months to years), and can leave countries, regions, or cities highly vulnerable to climate variability.

This means that despite the majority of Brazil being classed as tropical (81%) and possessing potentially huge water resources, drought events were recorded in all Brazilian territories between 2011 and 2019, with the majority of regions experiencing their most severe and intense droughts of the last 60 years during the 2010s.

Recent notable events include the 2014 drought in south-eastern Brazil (which compromised the water supply of 28 million people), the 2013 drought across the northeast (the worst in 100 years with severe impacts for agriculture and livestock), and the 2021 drought within the south-central region (the worst since satellite records began).

‘The majority of [Brazilian] regions experienced their most severe and intense droughts of the last 60 years during the previous decade [2010s].’

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021 report warns that global warming and unabated land-use change are inducing a cascade of persistently dry-conditions across the globe. Within South America, there is particular concern around the fate of the Amazon rainforest, which is critical in driving atmospheric moisture and generating precipitation across South America.

The Itaipu Dam, which sits on the Paraná River at the Brazil/Paraguay border, is the second-largest operational hydroelectric plant in the world. | Deni Williams / Flickr

Decades of deforestation in the Amazon—also the main driver of forest fires—has slashed the amount of moisture transported towards south-central Brazil, resulting in a reduction in precipitation. The former rainforest land is then frequently used for intensive cattle farming, reducing vegetation cover and compacting soils, further impacting the ability of the soil to retain moisture and recharge aquifers.

Both deforestation and drying are projected to increase in the coming decades, which coupled with heightened fire risk, could push the rainforest past a tipping point, resulting in rapid land surface degradation, reduced moisture recycling, and drier conditions.

However, while the above factors have certainly increased drought frequency and will continue to do so in the future, they alone cannot explain the recurring water crises in Brazil.

‘Decades of deforestation in the Amazon have slashed the amount of moisture transported towards south-central Brazil, resulting in a reduction in precipitation’

It is worth clarifying how droughts are defined, as there are numerous definitions, including meteorological, hydrological, agricultural, and socio-economic (such distinctions are rarely mentioned in media reporting).

Meteorological drought simply refers to periods of dry weather with little rainfall or high temperatures (increasing evaporation), prolonged periods of which can result in hydrological droughts (surface water shortages).

Agricultural droughts can follow, which can hit crop yields and undermine food security. Similarly, shortages to domestic or industrial supplies—what most think of when picturing severe droughts—are known as socio-economic droughts, and can lead to rationing, disease, conflict, and migration.

While these different droughts interact with each other and often exacerbate one another, they may not necessarily lead to a water crisis. For example, if a country has plentiful groundwater supplies, which are more resilient to climate variability, a hydrological drought may not translate into any socio-economic drought.

Agricultural droughts can lead to widespread death of cattle, two of which are seen here in the drought-hit state of Ceará, Brazil. | Water Alternatives Photos / Flickr

So, while Brazilian politicians like to blame ‘natural disasters’ on climate change, the recurrence of water crises in Brazil also reflects inadequate governance. The failure to treat water as an essential national resource has led to a long history of mismanagement, with erratic national policies favouring agribusiness and mining companies, increasing deforestation and wildfires, and undermining climate mitigation.

Following severe water shortages in 2014 and 2015, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences criticised state authorities for failing to take decisive action and for limited transparency around the severity of the situation.

‘The failure to treat water as an essential national resource has led to a long history of mismanagement’

A failure to diversify away from surface waters has also exacerbated vulnerabilities; Brazil lies above major aquifer systems, which represents a more climate-resilient alternative to surface waters and a critical resource during hydrological droughts. However, minimal investment in research and investment has left groundwater underexploited.

Furthermore, inadequate meteorological, groundwater, and water use monitoring networks also limit the ability of water managers to effectively track water availability and variability across the country. Brazil monitors groundwater at just 409 sites nationally, compared to more than 16,000 and 22,000 in the North American and Indian networks respectively, with no system at all to monitor soil moisture.

The governance of these networks needs to be strengthened, as end-users such as farmers and local water departments require timely and readily accessible hydrological data, as well as effective guidance on how to respond to future crises.

Agricultural and urban expansion is driving deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. | CIFOR / Flickr

The above measures must also be accompanied by robust policies on deforestation and GHG emissions. At COP26, Brazil did promise to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and cut emissions by 50% (relative to 2005) by 2030, but whether these will be met, or are sufficient, is highly questionable. Hopes will be particularly low if Jair Bolsonaro—who has gutted environmental departments and slashed scientific research funding—wins a second term this year.

So, while Brazil is not currently experiencing the widespread domestic water rationing, food shortages, and migration associated with the most extreme water crises, there is potential for these to materialise unless urgent preventative and adaptive measures to enhance Brazilian hydroclimatic resilience are instigated.

The expertise and motivation to address these challenges are present, researchers just need a government willing to work with them to help draft the policies and provide the investment needed to ensure optimal water practice.

Featured Image: Rodrigo Soldon | Flickr

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