Brazil’s Water Crisis: Deforestation and Drought
By Stefano Pozzebon
On Tuesday 21 April, the Frontline Club hosted a panel to discuss the water crisis in Brazil and the world’s largest green area, the Amazonian rainforest. Chaired by Andrew Mitchell, chairman of the Scientific Exploration Society, the event was the second in a series entitled ‘Exploration of the Frontline,’ a collaboration between the Scientific Exploration Society and the Frontline Club that aims at bringing together journalists, explorers and academics for an evening of informed debate.
As Mitchell detailed, Brazil is currently suffering a staggering water crisis, despite the fact that it holds approximately 12% of the world’s fresh water reserves, four fifths of which are in the Amazonian river basin.
“In Sao Paulo you have a city of 22 million people facing chronic droughts, a situation unique in the history of Brazil,” Mitchell said. This drought is largely the result of wide-scale deforestation, and of changes to the ecosystems in the Amazonian area, hundreds of miles north of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil’s coastline.
Sue Cunningham, an author and photographer with more than 20 years of experience in Brazil, illustrated the consequences of the massive deforestation that she had been witness to during a 2007 expedition on the Xingu river in the heart of the rainforest. Travelling by boat and small planes, the group visited 48 different tribes living along the river.
“When you fly over the forest, you can see when the pollution happens from a pristine river to a contaminated river,” said Cunningham, showing an aerial picture of the polluted Xingu where mercurial refuse had caused a significant change in the colour of the water.
Nixiwaka Yawanawá, a member of the Yawanawá tribe currently working with Survival International to raise awareness about the Amazon and the rights of tribal communities, showed the Frontline Club audience a video of the latest flood that had hit his indigenous community in the Brazilian state of Acre.
Up to 80% of the villages and settlements of the Yawanawá community were swept away. “We never thought that this would happen,” said Yawanawá. “One of our shamans, and they usually are the oldest people in a tribe, he said that in one hundred years we have never seen this kind of flood. Everyone was very shocked and surprised, but we have to carry on.”
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The task of explaining the meteorological dynamics of the issue was assumed by panelists Peter Bunyard and Dr Friederike Otto.
Peter Bunyard, founder of The Ecologist, explained the role of trade winds that flow from Africa and the Atlantic over the Amazonian basin. These winds create a mechanism called the ‘biotic pump’, a natural phenomenon that influences the climate of the entire Latin American region, from Panama to Patagonia.
Otto, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, linked the occurrence of drastic climate events such as droughts, typhoons and hurricanes to longterm climate change and the consequential rise in temperature of the planet. “This is a longterm change, and all of these events play together.”
Rogerio Simoes, a Brazilian journalist based in London and former head of the Brazilian Service at the BBC World Service, explained that the rising population of Sao Paulo was a major game-changer in environmental terms.
“Brazil just cannot cope with the population growth,” said Simoes. “According to the latest census in Brazil, there are 11.6 million people living in slums, illegal slums.”
Simoes finished by adding that the short-sightedness of Brazilian politicians was leading to a worsening of the situation. For example, the governor of Sao Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, repeatedly denied any issue of water shortage during the 2014 election campaign, at a time when the main water reservoir was at just 7.2% of its total capacity.