Worst drought in a century hits Brazil as it fights to defeat Covid

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

Agricultural centers in São Paulo state and Mato Grosso do Sul were the hardest hit, after the November-March rainy season produced the lowest level of rainfall in 20 years.

Water levels in the Cantareira reservoir system, which serves an estimated 7.5 million people in the city of São Paulo, have fallen to less than a tenth of its capacity this year. Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy called it the country’s worst drought in 91 years.

“Lately we’ve been without water every other day, but it was usually at night. But on Thursday we haven’t had water all day, ”said Nilza Maria Silva Duarte from the working-class eastern zone of São Paulo.

José Francisco Gonçalves, professor of ecology at the University of Brasilia, said the drought was having a devastating effect on the important agricultural industry, which accounts for around 30% of the gross domestic product.

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

A farm worker stands on the edge of the dry banks of the Jacarei River © Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg

He predicted that the drought “would fuel inflation and commodity prices globally and reduce Brazilian GDP.” This has direct repercussions. “

Jose Odilon, a farmer from Ribeirão Preto, a booming agricultural center in the interior of São Paulo state, said his sugar cane crop was badly affected.

Its sprawling plantation is dotted with heavy agricultural equipment – much of it automated – to strip the cane of its leaves, harvest the stalk, and then throw it into a fleet of Mercedes trucks waiting for transport to local factories.

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

Odilon blamed a reversal in La Nina’s weather regime, which brought more rain to the Amazon basin and less to the south of the country.

Map showing extreme drought in southern Brazil

Marcelo Laterman, a climate activist with Greenpeace Brazil, said the drought was “directly linked” to deforestation in the Amazon, which reached its highest level in more than a decade last year. The forest water recycling system plays a critical role in distributing rainfall across South America.

As hydroelectric power accounts for about 65 percent of Brazil’s electricity mix, the drought has also reduced electricity production. This has forced the switch to more expensive thermal energy, pushing electricity prices for businesses and consumers up to 40% higher this year, according to estimates.

“Our current model based on hydroelectric and thermal energy is not sustainable,” said Laterman. “The increase in droughts puts pressure on the reservoirs of hydropower plants and the response we have is the activation of thermoelectric plants – which, in addition to being expensive, increase greenhouse gas emissions and worsen the problem. problem.”

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

The low water levels of the Jacarei River can be observed at the Jaguari Reservoir near Joanopolis, in the state of Sao Paulo © Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg

Silva Duarte said: “Our electricity bill is much more expensive, and I don’t know how we are going to do because our salary has not increased. They said the prices would go up further. Where will he stop?

The drought comes as Brazil grapples with the economic and social effects of the pandemic. Nearly half a million Brazilians have died Covid-19, the second worst of any country after the United States, and the death rate remains above 2,000 per day.

The rollout of the vaccine in the country has also been delayed and is only starting to accelerate. Just over a quarter of Brazil’s 212 million people have now received a first injection.

With consumer prices rising more than 8% through May, inflation combined with high levels of unemployment to hit 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% of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security .

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