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The Water Problem in Brazil: What are they Doing Wrong?

According to the Global Water Partnership (GWP), Latin America plays an indispensable role in the global environmental context. Brazil, Colombia and Peru are three of the largest holders of freshwater in the continent, with Brazil having the largest freshwater reserve in the world. Based on this information, it would seem that water scarcity would never be a problem to the country. Indeed, the Brazilian government certainly thought so, but they were wrong.

Brazil is a major producer and exporter of commodities and has a high population density with over 200 million people. However, the apparent abundance of water in the country is not enough for everyone.

In cities like São Paulo, one of the biggest cities in Brazil, the demand for drinking water is very high, but much of it is wasted due to inefficient use and poor facilities. As a result, the crisis is made worse not only in urban areas, but also in rural regions.

In an interview for BBC Brazil from February this year, the general director of the United Nations Agency for Agriculture and Food Security (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, made the point that Brazil’s water crisis endangers not only the supply of their cities, but also the food supply in the country’s food markets. In his words “we [Brazil] are having a huge crop failure of all products”.

A simplistic explanation for this issue is that the Brazilian government has always had nature on its side – there had been no reason to worry about water supplies when previously it has been so abundant. As a result and as previously mentioned, a large amount of drinking water in Brazil is wasted due to inefficient use and poor infrastructure. The reuse of water is also not common practice as it is in other countries; Israel for example, recycles 75% of its domestic water. Also, with the exception of a few states in the northeast where the arid climate is historic, Brazil has never had a problem with rain density. In fact, in recent years there were frequent cases of flooding and landslides in important urban areas such as the tragedy that occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2011 where many families were buried and displaced from their homes by large floods. Nevertheless, problems in the rural areas did occur, but only very occasionally, not being a persistent problem in Brazilian agriculture until recently.

Weather problems

The situation has steadily worsened since 2012 when food prices began to increase considerably, not because of too much water but precisely the opposite.

Brazil is currently experiencing an unprecedented drought, with water scarcity leaving the water supplies of the largest cities in the country perilously low, triggering the risk of blackouts and power cuts since about 80% of Brazilian production is hydroelectric – another problem not foreseen by the federal government. As said by Graziano da Silva, Brazil will have to expand its food stocks and also focus more on agricultural activities that are more resistant to dry weather, a phenomenon that could become increasingly common due to climate change.

He also said: “at FAO, our assessment is that this year the impact of “El Niño” (overheating of the Pacific waters that heats the atmosphere) was much higher than expected. It had never reached the point of threatening the urban supply, as we are currently seeing in Sao Paulo. We are going through the rainy season in Brazil and it should be raining much more. We had a water deficit of almost one meter in the central-southern Brazil. It is expected that rainfall will be normalized for the next crop year, which starts in September, but until then we will face the lack of waste water and all the aggravating effects it has”.

The Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, also explained her concerns, describing the water crisis as “sensitive”, recognizing that the situation is “very worrying”.

What are they doing wrong?

It was only in the Brazilian Constitution in 1988 that the question of water resources became part of the political agenda. As part of the constitution, the private ownership of water was banned, handing it to the country and its states, and the National System of Water Resources Management was created. Since then, population growth, industrialization, the expansion of agriculture and the increasing climate change phenomena inherent in the development of the country are constantly and inevitably contributing to the process of degradation and scarcity of water resources.

Thus, Brazil’s current water crisis faces two obstacles: the scarcity and the quality of water resources. The scarcity of water is related to public policy, and the management of these resources, while the quality of water bodies is related to sanitation issues and solid and liquid waste management. This illustrates that investments in technological changes and innovations are essential not only in long term projects, but also in short-term projects and emergency situations.

Recently one of the country’s largest water reservoirs called ‘Cantareira’ located in São Paulo, measured at just 5% of its total capacity. Through an emergency initiative, the São Paulo State Government in partnership with the Federal Government, have started a water transposition system project which should allow the water transition from this reservoir to another highly important to the region, called ‘Billings’. However, the high level of Billings’ water pollution is hindering the project. Nowadays, many others solutions are being discussed but nothing effective has been done so far.

The only thing we can be absolutely sure about is that something must be done. After all, the largest most developed country in Latin America would not want to be responsible for the drought of the largest reservoir of the world’s fresh water. At least we should hope so.

About the Author

Isabela Furegatti Corrêa graduated in International Relations, specialized in International Economic Negotiations and is currently a masters student in Latin America Integration at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), Brazil. She has been working at USP since 2010 in the International Affairs area, developing academic partnerships with other important Universities around the the world.

Cover image ‘Itu water protest‘ by Martha Slivak


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