Worst drought in a century hits Brazil as it struggles to beat Covid

The worst drought in nearly a century has left millions of Brazilians facing water shortages and the threat of power cuts, complicating the country’s efforts to recover from the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The agricultural centers of the state of Sao Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul were worst affected, after the November-March rainy season produced the lowest rainfall in 20 years.

Water levels in the Cantarera system of reservoirs, which serve about 7.5 million people in the city of São Paulo, have fallen to less than a tenth of their capacity this year. Brazil’s Ministry of Energy and Mines has described it as the country’s worst drought in 91 years.

Lately, we’ve been without water every two days, but that usually happened at night. “On Thursday we had no water all day,” said Nilsa Maria Silva Duarte of the working-class eastern district of São Paulo.

Jose Francisco Goncalves, professor of ecology at the University of Brasilia, said the drought has had a devastating effect on the important agriculture industry, which accounts for about 30 percent of GDP.

“The lack of water in rivers and reservoirs means that farmers will not be able to irrigate their land, which will lead to a decline in agricultural production,” he said.

A farm worker stands by the parched banks of the Jakkari River | © Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg

He predicted that the drought would “fuel inflation and commodity prices on a global scale, and reduce Brazilian GDP. It has direct repercussions.”

Jose Odilon, a farmer from Ribeirão Preto, a thriving agricultural center in the interior of São Paulo state, said his sugarcane crop was hit hard.

His vast farm is filled with heavy farming equipment – mostly mechanized – to strip the reeds of their leaves, harvest the stems and then unload them into a waiting fleet of Mercedes trucks for transport to local factories.

“We will suffer more because of the lack of moisture in the soil,” he explained. “This really hinders development.”

Odilon blamed a reversal of La Nina’s weather pattern, resulting in more rain falling on the Amazon basin and less in the south of the country.

Map showing severe drought in southern Brazil

Marcelo Laterman, a climate activist from Greenpeace Brazil, said the drought is “directly linked” to deforestation in the Amazon, which last year jumped to its highest level in more than a decade. The forest’s water recycling system plays a vital role in the distribution of precipitation across South America.

With hydropower accounting for about 65 percent of Brazil’s electricity mix, drought has also curtailed electricity production. That has forced a switch to more expensive thermal power, driving up electricity prices for businesses and consumers by as much as 40 percent this year, according to estimates.

“Our current hydroelectric and thermoelectric model is unsustainable,” Laterman said. “An increase in droughts is putting pressure on hydropower plant reservoirs and our answer is to revitalize thermoelectric plants – which, in addition to being expensive, increases greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates the problem.”

The Brazilian government has issued warnings of possible power outages, raising fears of energy rationing. Local media reported that the government is preparing a decree on rationing to control the use of electricity in times of shortage. The Ministry of Mines and Energy said it was discussing energy rationing with “large consumers and industry in times of increased energy demand”.

Low water levels can be seen in the Jacari River in the Jacari Reservoir near Guanopolis, São Paulo state © Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg

Silva Duarte said, “Our electricity bill is definitely more expensive, and I don’t know how we will manage that because our salary has not gone up. They said prices will go up more. Where will they stop?”

The drought comes as Brazil grapples with the economic and social effects of the pandemic. Nearly half a million Brazilians died from COVID-19, the second worst country after the United States, and the death rate is still higher than 2,000 people per day.

The introduction of the vaccine in the country was also delayed and began to increase. Just over a quarter of Brazil’s population of 212 million got a first chance.

With consumer prices rising more than 8 percent in the year to May, inflation combined with high levels of unemployment afflicting the country’s poorest citizens.

Less than half of Brazilians now have access to adequate food all the time, with 19 million people, or 9 percent of its population, facing hunger, according to the Brazilian Research Network on Food, Nutritional Sovereignty and Security.

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