Brazilians lack the British obsession with weather. I often start conversations by commenting on how sunny it is, only to remember that every day is sunny in Brasilia. Talking about water is perhaps the closest equivalent. Most Brazilians have an opinion on the subject – whether about the standing water that breeds zika- and dengue-spreading mosquitoes, regional droughts, or poor sanitation.
The subject hit the international headlines last year when Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million people, nearly ran out of water. By the end of the dry season in September, the city’s main reservoir was running on dregs, or “volume morto”. Water pressure was reduced and poor households frequently went hours without supply. Thankfully, reserves have risen since then and the worst crisis was avoided. A strong El Nino has helped here (though not in southern states and nearby Uruguay and Paraguay, where 150,000 people were displaced by Christmas floods). Experts think Sao Paulo will probably need to use back-up supplies again this year nevertheless.
Cantareira Reservoir running low in 2015, photo by Evelson de Freitas, Estadão de São Paulo.
It seems odd that Brazil, which has more fresh water than any other country, should experience water shortages. The problem is that resources are concentrated in the low-populated Amazon region. The northeast has experienced years of devastating drought, and the southeast (where Sao Paulo and Rio are) has had a run of below-average rainfall. Pipes connect the regions but pumping water across distances equivalent to London-Istanbul is prohibitively expensive.
Climate change and environmental degradation are exacerbating the problem. The dry northeast may see rainfall drop another 20%. Sao Paulo and the southeast expect more rainfall, but intensely, punctuated by years of drought. Rainforest loss means less transpiration for the “flying rivers” that bring rain down south. And illegal urban construction near rivers prevents rainfall from being absorbed. Replanting trees near rivers would be a cheaper way to preserve rainfall than big infrastructure projects linking water basins, but demand for urban land is high, and laws aren’t always enforced.
Water scarcity also affects the economy through energy prices. Around three-quarters of Brazil’s electricity is generated by hydro. Last year’s water shortage in the southeast was exacerbated by political decisions to run hydro (the cheapest form of generation) more intensively to keep electricity bills down before the November 2014 elections. If there are further droughts because of climate change, Brazil’s hydro capacity may be reduced. To maintain a low carbon power supply and meet its international climate commitments, Brazil will need to achieve all itsambitions to develop solar and wind power. (Nuclear is theoretically possible but the only plant under development is stalled by corruption investigations).
This is a real pressure on Brazil’s emissions. Between 2011 and 2014, emissions from power generation increased 171% even though generation only increased by 11%. The increase (admittedly from a very low base) was because of the shift to thermal.
Meanwhile, water and sanitation services are poor. More than half of Brazilians don’t have their sewage collected. A tiny percent of waste water is treated and returned into the water system, which means there’s more pressure on freshwater sources (and more energy spent pumping water around the network). Access to piped water hasincreased significantly (from 78% to 94% of the population between 1990 and 2015), but there is insufficient investment in maintenance, and more than a third of water is lost in leakage.
The culture of water use is starting to change. Paulistanos talked obsessively about water last year, sharing tips on how to use less. There are some easy savings – the average Brazilian used 167 litres per day in 2014, compared 121l in Germany. The culture of showering twice a day probably won’t stop though, unless pipes actually run dry – Brazilians are notoriously clean and often find foreigners smelly!
Source: Euromonitor, 2015
Destatis – Statistiches Bundesamt, ‘Use of drinking water remained constant in 2013’, webpage viewed 11 March 2016. https://www.destatis.de/EN/FactsFigures/NationalEconomyEnvironment/Environment/EnvironmentalSurveys/WaterSupplyIndustry/Current.html
Euromonitor 2014, Global Bathing Habits, Datagraphic Survey
Girardi, G 2015, ‘Site monitora em tempo real emissões de CO2 do setor elétrico no Brasil’, Estadão de São Paulo, 19 November
Hirtenstein, A 2015, ‘Brazil Seeks to Boost Solar Industry to Match Wind, BNDES Says’, Bloomberg, 28 October
IPCC 2014, Central and South America, chapter 27 in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1499-1566.
Lada, B 2016, South America autumn forecast: Brazil drought to ease; Early rains to soak Colombia to Chile, Accuweather.com, 2 March, viewed 11 March 2016. http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/2016-south-america-autumn-forecast-drought-eases-brazil-rain-colombia-to-chile/55603181
Ministerio de Minas e Energia 2014, Energia no Bloco dos Brics: Ano de Referencia 2013
OECD 2015, Environmental Performance Review: Brazil 2015, OECD Publishing, Paris
Time 2015, A Megacity Without Water: Sao Paulo’s drought, online video, 13 October, viewed 11 March 2016. http://time.com/4054262/drought-brazil-video/
WHO/UNICEF 2015, Water Supply Statistics.