How climate change and government mismanagement created Brazil's worst drought in decades
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How climate change and government mismanagement created Brazil's worst drought in decades

The largest city in South America is dry as a bone. Unseasonally warm temperatures and a lack of precipitation have plunged the 20-million-plus population of São Paulo, Brazil, into a crisis. The city’s reservoirs are either down to single digits or in the teens.

This has forced the city of São Paulo and other drought-stricken areas to impose strict limits on water supplies, and businesses and homes are feeling the pinch. Even hospitals have had to adapt to using less water, which can mean more than inconvenience for patients with chronic ailments. According to some sources, doctors have even been forced to shorten dialysis treatments.

While limited water rationing has already been enacted in São Paulo, it may become more widespread in the coming weeks or months, something that is sure to anger residents.

But residents are already angry. Those beset by the current water crisis are putting the blame largely at the feet of the government and water companies, regardless of the fact that the biggest problem may be the fact that it just isn’t raining.

Perhaps public anger should be directed more toward logging companies and government policies on deforestation than issues relating to water infrastructure.

Antonio Nobre, a leading Brazilian climate scientist, believes that the loss of forest cover in the Amazon and Atlantic forests is mainly to blame for the drought.

According to Nobre, the government should have planted more trees over the past 10 years to make up for the preceding massive and rapid deforestation. He believes that, in order to reverse the damage already done to Brazil’s climate, particularly its rain patterns, significant changes to land use are necessary.

From Nobre’s report, The Future Climate of Amazonia:

We must regenerate, as widely as possible, all that has been changed and destroyed. It was only the integrity of the original green-ocean forest that secured the benign health of South America’s water cycle, sustaining it throughout geological eras.

In the short term, it is the governor of São Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, who will face the ire of residents of the world’s 10th largest city, while drought-stricken citizens of other affected metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte blame their local governors.

Despite the evidence pointing to the effects of climate change, as explained by Antonio Nobre, these angry citizens may have a point. A recent report by Brazil’s central government found that 37 percent of tap water gets lost through a combination of leaky pipes, illegal access to water and fraud. Furthermore, it has been reported that only 30 percent of wastewater is treated, meaning it eventually contaminates freshwater supplies, further reducing potable sources.

The bottom line is that Brazil’s — and the world’s — climate is changing, and this is going to affect some areas far more than others. Efforts to slow, stop and reverse local and global changes would be great, but are unlikely under the economic models currently in practice in large countries. The best bet in the short term, then, would be to improve infrastructure and reduce waste, which will mean changes in lifestyle habits for millions of citizens, but also changes in the practices of large industries — including agriculture.

In the meantime, although deforestation may be generally slowing down, reforestation programs aren’t doing enough to reverse the trend. Reversing the damage done and bringing water back to the people of São Paulo will require the kind of sustained government action that no large political party is currently willing to enact.

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