Brazil facing freshwater crisis as Olympics loom

Residents of Brazil’s two biggest cities are facing a water crisis that may affect the 2016 Oympic Games.

Sao Paulo, Brazil facing drought.

Sao Paulo, Brazil facing drought. Image by Julio Boaro / CC BY-SA 2.0

While headlines are currently dominated by news of the Rio Doce contamination disaster in Minas Gerais state, an unprecedented drought has seen São Paulo residents beset by rising water prices, poor water pressure, frequent 12-hour cuts and blackouts.

Almost half of São Paulo’s population of about 20 million relies on water from the Cantareira water system. Last month, it was at 12 per cent capacity. The Billings reservoir on the other side of town is faring better, but is polluted because of population pressures and poor regulation. One NGO is reviving built-over waterways and digging cisterns in the city’s fringe neighbourhoods to alleviate the pressure. Meanwhile, the four main reservoirs supplying Rio de Janeiro are at less than six per cent of capacity, raising concerns that, if there is another disappointing wet season, the crisis will continue to hit the city when the Oympics come to town next year.

Screengrab of NASA's YouTube video of changing drought conditions in Brazil.

Screengrab of NASA's YouTube video of changing drought conditions in Brazil. Image by Image courtesy of YouTube

The primary cause of the water shortage is the worst drought to have hit Brazil in 80 years. The results of new satellite imaging published last month shows that the drought is much worse than previously imagined. Brazil’s southeast has lost 56 trillion litres in each of the past three years – roughly equivalent to California’s Lake Tahoe. While Brazil’s southeast is hardest hit, the more sparsely populated northeast is also affected.  As Brazil relies on hydroelectric power to generate about three-quarters of its electricity, the drought has also led to increased blackouts.

While Brazil receives up to 16 per cent of the world’s rainfall, much of it falls in the inaccessible Amazon rainforest. Some scientists pinning the blame for the drought on deforestation in the Amazon. Others point to global climate changes. The World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct project predicts more water shortages across the globe in the coming decades. But poor infrastructure is also partly to blame. Some 80 per cent of Rio’s effluent is dumped untreated into rivers.

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