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


Meeting the Demand for Urban Sustainability in Rio

Rio de Janeiro is a city known for its vibrant culture, beautiful beaches and rainforest, as well as carnival celebrations. With the 2016 Olympics on the horizon, this city faces challenges related to transportation, security, sanitation and environmental protection. In response to these challenges, the city invested in programs that help promote sustainable growth and urban revitalization.

One of these programs is the Morar Carioca (Portuguese for Rio de Janeiro living), also called the Municipal Plan for the integration of Informal Settlements, which aims to turn all favelas into neighborhoods by 2020. This program is expected to improve the living conditions of up to 320,000 households. [1] Apart from improving the living conditions of several households, transforming slums into formal housing will also contribute to improving health conditions of the people and minimizing environmental pollution.

Another adopted program is the Municipal Recycling Collection Expansion, which is supported by the Brazilian National Development Bank. This gives high priority to increasing household waste segregation and recycling programs. The city also aims to collect an additional 31,000 tons of waste per year by this year [1] and this will benefit the local waste picker cooperatives that depend on waste recycling for their livelihood.

With regard to transportation, Rio implemented the “Bicycle Capital City”, a key program that promotes bicycle as a mode of transportation for improved urban mobility, environmental quality, social inclusion and economic benefits. The strategies to this program include the expansion of cycling infrastructure, implementation of bike-share program, increasing the number of bike-parking facilities and the development of bike map. [1] Bike-sharing was first introduced in Amsterdam back in 1965 where bicycles were free to use as long as they will be returned in good conditions. [2] Cycling has a lot of mental and health benefits too and is an efficient and environmentally-friendly way to travel in short distances. Building a cycling culture has also been initiated in several countries such as in Turkey. [3]

In addition to the cycling program of Rio, it has also been successful in launching its first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor that helped hundreds of thousands of residents by providing them with safer transport and shorter commutes. Apart from this, BRT also has great impact in reducing pollution emission from transportation. In the future, BRT system in Rio is expected to expand from one corridor to four. As stated by Mayor Eduardo Paes “This is the first BRT with others to come. It is a cultural change around how people move about in the city. It’s like a subway train on wheels, at much lower costs.” [4] The second BRT system was opened last year and this is a great advancement of this program.

Because of the massive transit improvements in Rio, together with two other cities, Belo Horizonte and São Paolo, these three Brazilian cities garnered the 2015 Sustainable Transport Award; the first time to have a three-way tie in this award. A great accomplishment for Brazil! This award was established in 2005 and is given annually to a city that has implemented innovative sustainable means of transportation projects in the preceding year. Last year’s award was given to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which launched two new corridors of their BRT system. [5]

Attaining high level of sustainability in Rio will cost a lot, but with the projected economic and environmental returns it will definitely pay off provided that these programs be continually monitored and there is cooperation among involved individuals. Gaining support of the residents will be a key success to the full implementation of these programs.

Meg Daupan
M.S. Natural Resources and Environment ’16


[2] Midgley, P. 2011. Bicycle-sharing schemes: Enhancing sustainable mobility in urban areas. NY: Commission on Sustainable Development.




World’s Largest Open-air Landfill Closed: Threats and Opportunities

The world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho (“Gramacho Gardens”), located at Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro closed last June 2012. This was few weeks before the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. This landfill received about 9,000 to 10,000 tons of rubbish per day and reached up to 300 feet high across 14 million square feet. [1] For a city that has been an excellent tourist destination, this might sound absurd. But Jardim Gramacho has been in operation for 34 years and like other big landfills, it had been oozing toxic chemicals that threaten the nearby community and the sea. This resulted in added pollution of Guanabara Bay. [2]

The closing of the landfill had been postponed several times and finally advanced in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics alongside the UN Rio+20. [1] This was also done in abidance with the Kyoto Protocol and this act alone is said to potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,400 tons per year. [3] Rio, being one of the pilot cities for the newly developed international standard for inventorying GHGs-the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories (GPC), has found that the biggest contributors for its overall emissions are transport (39%) and waste (19%). [3] Closing of this landfill is therefore a critical step to meeting the city’s goal of reducing 20% of its emissions by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

But then where is the garbage from Jardim Gramacho sent? It was moved to the high-tech Seropedica landfill where wastes get treated and transformed into recycled water. [1] This new landfill is located 70 kilometers away from the city and is expected to have a 30-year lifetime and this presents opportunities for the recovery and use of landfill gas (LFG). [4] Since landfills have their own carrying capacities, continuous dumping of enormous wastes into this new landfill might later on cause further pollution problems at this site and the city will have to take necessary actions again. Currently, the Jardim Grimacho landfill is being used for biofuel production. The city made a deal with the Petrobras Company to purchase the gas and use it in running one of its refineries.

It is not surprising that environmentalists welcomed this act of closing Jardim Grimacho landfill, but not everyone is satisfied with it. The catadores, favela residents who make a living from recycling, for example, are challenged by the loss of income source from this landfill. There are about 5,000 catadores who depend on Jardim Gramacho for their livelihood. They generally earn about the minimum wage in Brazil (roughly $268/month) but this earning has increased about two-folds since they formed the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho that enabled them to create a decentralized recycling and to secure professional recognition for their services. [5] Despite being retrained and compensated, the catadores were still better off with their own recycling system. A solution to one can be a problem for another and meeting the demand for both is not a simple task.


Meg Daupan
M.S. Natural Resources and Environment ’16

[1] Brocchetto, M. and A. Ansari. 5 June 2012. Landfill’s closure changing lives in Rio.

[2] BBC News. 3 June 2012. Brazil’s biggest rubbish dump closes in Rio de Janeiro.

[3] Fong, W. and R. Schleeter. 8 December 2014. Hundreds of cities poised to replicate Rio’s approach to measuring and reducing emissions.

[4] CCAC. Solid waste management in Rio de Janeiro.

[5] Benton-Short, L. and J. Short. 2013. Critical Introductions to Urabanism and the City. 2nd ed. NY:Routledge.

More to Consider: Electricity in Brazil

Brazil has big decisions to make concerning its electricity landscape, dictated until now by the flow of water. Hydroelectricity accounted for approximately 86 MW of Brazil’s 127 MW of installed generating capacity in 2013.[1] But hydroelectricity is not as secure as it once was, with considerable inter-annual and seasonal variability in water supply, only thought to increase in the future. Last year, for example, the southeastern part of Brazil experienced the “most severe drought in at least 80 years,” a region also responsible for “70 percent of the country’s hydroelectric generation.”[2] The Belo Monte dam is still being built, but a shift is nonetheless underway.


But is that shift in the right direction?

Fossil fuel sources combined for another 37 MW of the country’s 2013 installed generating capacity.[3] According to the New York Times, Brazil’s policy response to the drought was “a sustained investment in gas and coal,” which contributed to an increase in GHG emissions, as “concerns about the environment dropped down the priority list.”[4]

While Brazil remains relatively low in GHG emissions when compared with countries like the U.S., better electricity investments ­– moving away from non-renewables and centralized generation – could help it to keep GHG numbers low, meet its generation needs, adapt to climate change, and preserve its environment and public health.

Doing the math, less than 5 MW of Brazil’s 2013 installed generating capacity came from alternative sources like wind, solar, nuclear, and biomass. With substantial generation potentials for wind and solar, scarce use is not about resources but other factors such as cost competitiveness and shortsighted policy, such as spending hundreds of billions of dollars developing infrastructure to drill 4 miles down into the ocean for oil in a market that has gone topsy-turvy. Even when ignoring externalities such as those from air pollution, though, alternative sources are nearing grid parity. So cost competitiveness is less of an issue. As costs continue to drop, the onus will increasingly fall on policymakers to support sensible investments.

The question is: What other factors should policymakers consider in guiding Brazil’s electricity investments, transitioning to something more sustainable?

As a large country with a relatively spread out population, one key investment consideration should be the differential potentials for decentralized, or distributed, generation among the sources. Electricity should increasingly be generated near where it will be used, to cut transmission losses and increase efficiency. One feasible example of this type of generation could be eucalyptus biomass, possible even in the northeast of the country.


Another key consideration, as a country with globally important biodiversity, should be the differential ratios of energy generated to land used among the different sources. There should be no false choice between generating electricity and protecting critical habitats.

Deciding on policies to guide investment will be undeniably complicated, with many factors to consider. But no matter what, Brazil’s electricity generation should in the future rely more on renewable sources like wind, solar, and biomass.

Brendan Hall
MPP/MS ’15

[1] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2014). “Analysis Briefs: Brazil”. <;

[2] Rochas, A., & Samora, R. (2015). “Brazil water supply, crops still at risk a year after epic drought.” Reuters. <;

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2014). “Analysis Briefs: Brazil”. <;

[4] Porter, E. (2014). “In Latin America, Growth Trumps Climate”. The New York Times. <;

Please consider making a tax-exempt donation to help fund IEDP’s trip to Brazil. Your gift is indispensable and will help defray critical program costs. To make a secure donation through the University of Michigan, follow this link, enter the amount of your donation, and type “for IEDP” as a comment on the next screen.

Favela Tours: A Shift towards Sustainable Tourism?

Favelas, the informal settlements that sprawl into the hills of Rio de Janeiro and other urban areas in Brazil, are known for their lack of public infrastructure, their high crime and their high poverty rates. Nevertheless, their popularity has grown both as places to volunteer and places for tourists to visit. Every year in Rio de Janeiro, about 42,000 tourists visit the favelas.[1] With the World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, this number will probably continue to rise. Commonly termed “slum tourism,” this has become increasingly popular and controversial.

One common form of slum tourism specific to Brazil is the favela tour. These tours take various forms, but usually include a guided tour through a slum community. One tour company, Hands Up Holidays, offers favela tours and their website describes a sample itinerary. Tourists stay in a “luxury boutique hotel” and will “step off the beaten track and experience some of Brazil’s hidden treasures including her favela (slum) communities.”[2] While visiting favelas might help tourists see and experience some of the challenges facing Brazil, critics have questioned the ethics of this form of tourism as those wealthy enough can come in, look at the poverty, and then return to their luxury hotel while claiming they saw the “real Brazil.”

Theresa Williamson, the director of the NGO Catalytic Communities working in the favelas, stated, “It’s one thing to go gawk at poverty, another thing is to go see a fascinating community where people are battling it out to better their lives. Residents can feel the difference.”[3] While favelas are integral to understanding the challenges facing Brazilian cities, it would be difficult to understand the social and economic complexities and challenges facing favela residents from just a half-day tour. While some see favela tours as a way for tour companies to profit from poverty, there are promising efforts underway to bring more benefits to the communities themselves.

Recent trends have shown tour companies emphasizing “sustainable favela tours” which include a more direct link to the communities they are visiting, and this sustainability component manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some tour guides encourage the tourists to spend more money in the communities, while others have a direct link to a charity or organization working in the community. For example, is one organization run completely by residents of the Rocinha favela, and 25% of their profits support a DJ (Disc Jockey) School and leadership program.[4] The tour company Exotic Tours runs favela tours that are led by community members and their profits support training of local guides and school projects within their community.[5] Other tours take tourists to see the Samba Schools, social clubs organized by neighborhood, that are practicing for Carnival competitions. Their rehearsal nights are open to the general public and turn into large night-clubs where tourists can experience the Samba music, dance, costumes and culture that is central to Brazil.[6]

Along with the sustainability component of these programs, raising awareness is another potential benefit. The more people who visit favelas, the more people who will have an understanding of life in favelas and the more people who could potentially work to advocate for or donate to efforts that will improve life and services in these communities. These recent efforts towards more sustainable and less exploitative forms of tourism are promising.

While favela tours remain controversial, they probably will not go away. The Brazilian Ministry of Tourism endorsed favela tours in 2013, and with the Olympics approaching, many tourists will want to see a more “realistic” version of life in Brazil. I hope that with the new emphasis on “sustainable favela tours,” tourists who come for the Olympics will be able to glimpse life in the favelas while contributing towards organizations working on the ground to improve lives of those living there.

Corey Ackerman
MPP  ’16








Please consider making a tax-exempt donation to help fund IEDP’s trip to Brazil. Your gift is indispensable and will help defray critical program costs. To make a secure donation through the University of Michigan, follow this link, enter the amount of your donation, and type “for IEDP” as a comment on the next screen.

Brazil’s Uncertain Environmental Future


Clearcutting in the Amazon. Photo by CIFOR.

Some fear that the re-election of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on October 26, 2014 signals an uncertain future for Brazil’s vast natural resources—including the 60% of the Amazon rainforest it controls. But while recent deforestation has been disheartening, Brazil still has a very recent history of hugely successful environmental programs. It is against this mixed backdrop that the global community reflects on the future of one of earth’s most precious resources.

The Amazon is home to 10% of the world’s known animal species. Over 2.5 million insect species are estimated to live in the Amazon, along with 40,000 plant species. It acts as one of the world’s largest filtration systems, taking in enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and turning it into the oxygen we breathe. And by keeping carbon dioxide out of the air, this large carbon sink also has great impact on global climate change.

While a world-wide concern, some of the devastating climate impacts are felt locally, as one might expect. A new report released by Brazil’s National Centre for Earth System Science links catastrophic drought, like the one currently affecting São Paulo, to the logging and burning of the Amazon rainforest.

And the problem of deforestation isn’t getting better—not recently—it’s getting worse. Unfortunately, the rate of deforestation has started to increase again, after a many-year downward trend. Last year, deforestation in Brazil increased 29%; in August and September of this year the rate of deforestation jumped 190% compared to the period a year previous.

Environmental groups are concerned about changes in Brazilian environmental law and executive policies. A March 2012 open letter signed by dozens of NGOs frames the problem as one of backsliding.

Flying in the face of the historical tendency, various specific cases illustrate the current moves to reverse [progress] and dismantle all the hard-won gains. Attempts to emasculate the current legislation, like the negotiations to rush through Congress a Forest Law reform bill utterly unworthy of the name, and the recently approved Complementary Law 140 regulating Article 23 of the Federal Constitution are the most serious examples. The list is long and includes the interruption of the process for creating protected areas, which occurred as soon as the present administration took office and actually reached the point of reducing the areas of several existing protected areas by means of a Presidential Decree, defying the legislation in force and infringing on Brazil’s international commitments. Another significant area of government neglect is the freezing of processes for the formal recognition of indigenous and quilombola lands while at the same time environmental licensing for huge public works with obvious social and environmental problems are issued at top speed.

President Rousseff’s administration has also greenlighted the controversial Belo Monte Dam, which will be the third largest in the world, flooding some 1,500 km of rainforest; refused to sign an international pledge to end deforestation; and strengthened ties with large agribusiness interests.

Increased sales of beef and soy to China are large drivers of Amazon deforestation, and the government’s pro-development policies have been seen by many as lacking effective environmental controls.

But Brazil has the ability to reclaim global environmental leadership. Brazil is, after all, a nation that has invested significant resources in technological monitoring, like satellite systems, that by most accounts has been hugely successful at reducing illegal logging. Over the past decade, the rate of deforestation has fallen 79%. Between 2005 and 2010, Brazil’s greenhouse-gas emissions fell 39%. Although the reductions in logging are not enough to save the Amazon, and even these are threatened by recent upward trends, Brazil has the ability to recapture recent successes—if it acts soon.

Matt McCurdy
JD ’15

Please consider making a tax-exempt donation to help fund IEDP’s trip to Brazil. Your gift is indispensable and will help defray critical program costs. To make a secure donation through the University of Michigan, follow this link, enter the amount of your donation, and type “for IEDP” as a comment on the next screen.