Brazil’s Water Crisis

Brazil can be characterized in many ways. Sparkling beaches, verdant rainforests and enormous waterfalls are especially evocative of this diverse country. Yet all represent Brazil’s water resources, which are threatened by the country’s worst drought since at least 1930.

Several factors have contributed to this crisis. First, deforestation in the Amazon and the Atlantic forest in Brazil’s Southeast has drastically altered the climate. Antonio Nobre, a respected Brazilian climatologist, has argued that “forests have an innate ability to import moisture and to cool down and to favor rain.” Although deforestation had been slowing in Brazil, it has recently accelerated again, which may be contributing to this crisis. Besides a lack of rain, recent work suggests that variability in rainfall and access to water is increasing in Brazil. This enhances the possibility of drought. Distribution issues are also possibly to blame. Brazil’s water resources are located far away from their population centers. 80% of Brazil’s water is in the Amazon river basin, where only 4% of its population lives. This unequal distribution of water resources means that 40% of urban Brazilians experience medium to extremely high water stress. A recent BBC story quoted a Datafolha survey, stating that “71% of the population of São Paulo and 36% of Brazilians have experienced problems with the water supply in the past month.”

Brazil has also been hindered by a poor government response to the crisis. São Paulo state’s governor has been accused of down-playing the crisis in the run-up to his October 2014 election. He has recently enacted several reforms to attempt to save water: “raising charges for high consumption levels, offering discounts to those who reduce use, and limiting the amounts captured by industries and agriculture from rivers.” But it may be too little, too late. The city’s main reservoir, depended on by 8 million people, is currently at 5.2% of its capacity.

The crisis is disrupting the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Brazilians. Rationing was recently put in place in São Paulo; some families have been under strict quotas for months. Restaurants are using plastic cups and plates to avoid using water on dishes. A laundry owner in São Paulo changed his hours of operation to keep his business afloat, as he has access to water for only 6 hours a day. Universities are considering canceling classes if the situation does not improve.

Industry, agriculture and energy are also being affected by the crisis. Many industrial processes require high water inputs. If Brazil’s industry must slow down to conserve water, this will hinder an already struggling economy. Brazil’s cattle industry is second in the world in volume behind India, and number one in beef exports. This very water-intensive business will suffer if rationing spreads. Finally, nearly 75% of Brazil’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric power. If water volume decreases on major rivers, millions of Brazilians will face the possibility of higher energy prices. Rolling blackouts are already happening.

Solutions to this crisis appear temporary and disjointed. Local governments waited so long to respond that rationing in many states is a must, absent extensive rainfall. Higher prices for greater water use is an aspect of some plans. However, especially in a crisis, higher prices tend to exacerbate inequalities in water access. There is little evidence of inter-regional cooperation, but that is how Brazil could avoid this sort of crisis in the future.

Brazil is still dependent on crisis-style water management strategies. A more collaborative, long-term water management system can help the country move forward sustainably. Most Western US states and some Eastern ones abide by the Reasonable Use doctrine to jointly manage scarce water resources. This facilitates cooperation among all community members. Brazil should enact similar policies in those states currently in crisis. Also, Brazil’s hydroelectric dependency is costing the country too much water. Large dams create large reservoirs, with greater surface areas than the normal flow of a river. This leads to increased evaporation, and less water for Brazilians to consume. Instead of hydroelectric power, Brazil ought to utilize other sustainable energy sources. They are already a leader in sugarcane-based ethanol fuels, and their extensive coastlines could be a gold mine for wind power. Instead of spending an estimated $221 billion between 2014 and 2018 to access pre-salt oil deposits, Brazil should invest in its solar and wind power capacities.

There is no easy fix, but hopefully, Brazil will take this crisis as an opportunity to lay the foundation for a sustainable water future.

Kyle Olsen
JD/MPP ’18


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