RIO DE JANEIRO – Harvests have shrunk in scorching heat. The huge water reservoirs that generate most of Brazil’s electricity grow shockingly shallow. And the largest waterfall system in the world, the IguaÃ§u Falls, was reduced to a trickle by a torrent.
As Brazil approaches 500,000 deaths from Covid-19, a worsening drought threatens the country’s ability to boost its battered economy and could set the stage for another highly devastating fire season in the Amazon rainforest.
Several states in the country have faced the worst drought in at least 90 years. The crisis has led to higher electricity prices, the threat of water rationing and an interruption in cultivation cycles. Agriculture, an economic engine that relies heavily on hydropower, is now in danger.
Experts said the arid landscape, which coincided with an increase in illegal deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in recent months, could lead to a devastating fire season. Environmental enforcement in the rainforest is weak and the fire season traditionally begins in July.
“We have a perfect storm,” said Liana Anderson, a biologist studying fire management at Brazil’s National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Early Warning. “The scenario we are in will make it very difficult to keep fires under control.”
Brazil’s National Meteorological System sounded the alarm about the severity of the drought in a bulletin issued in May. It found that five states – Minas Gerais, GoiÃ¡s, Mato Grosso do Sul, ParanÃ¡ and SÃ£o Paulo – would face chronic water scarcity from June to September.
President Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the risk of the pandemic last year and was widely criticized for his careless handling of the crisis. However, he warned that the drought would affect lives and livelihoods in Brazil in the coming months.
“We face a serious problem,” Bolsonaro said in May as government officials and analysts began warning the country of the possible consequences of the drought. âWe’re going through the worst hydrological crisis in history. That will cause a headache. “
Marcelo Seluchi, a meteorologist at the government’s national disaster monitoring center, said the current crisis was going on for years. Since 2014 there has been below-average rainfall in large regions in central, south-east and west Brazil.
“It has not rained as much as it has rained in eight years,” he said, calling the drought unusually widespread and protracted. “It’s like a water tank that doesn’t refill and every year we use more and more in the hope that things will improve in the next year, but that better year is yet to come.”
Mr Seluchi said the rain patterns that contributed to the drought are diverse and not fully understood. These include La NiÃ±a, a weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean, climate change and deforestation in the Amazon, and other biomes that play key roles in rainfall cycles.
“We cannot deny that climate change, namely global warming, is playing a role,” he said. “It rains less and we use more water.”
After power outages in 2001, Brazil committed to building ever more versatile power systems and diversifying its sources beyond hydropower plants. Since then, the country has reduced its electricity grid’s dependence on hydropower from 90 percent to 65 percent.
While government officials have downplayed the risk of power outages, the national electricity board recently warned that some customers could get higher utility bills as the country is forced to rely more on more expensive thermoelectric power. The agency urged Brazilians to save energy through short showers, more economical use of air conditioning and less frequent washing machines.
If government officials manage to avoid water and power outages this year, the most noticeable consequence of the drought is likely to come during the traditional fire season in the Amazon.
In the first five months of the year, preliminary estimates based on satellite imagery revealed that about 983 square miles of trees were demolished in the Amazon. According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, deforestation was 67 percent higher last month than it was in May last year.
The spike in deforestation comes weeks after the Bolsonaro government pledged to take tough action to curb illegal logging. The government has come under pressure from the Biden White House, which is trying to get all major carbon emitters to commit to ambitious climate change goals.
Environmentalists in Brazil say the government has weakened its environmental protection agencies in recent years by not hiring enough staff, reducing fines for environmental crimes, and helping industries vying for better access to protected biomes.
Rather than rebuilding the capabilities of environmental protection agencies, the Bolsonaro government has outsourced this work to the military and deployed troops to the Amazon in 2019 and 2020. Last week, Vice President Hamilton MourÃ£o announced that the government was launching a new military operation to prevent both illegal logging and fires. The initiative is scheduled to start this month and last for two months.
The government has promoted the military operations, particularly among international actors, as evidence of their commitment to the fight against illegal logging. However, experts say these operations did not get to the root of the problem and did little to change the impunity with which miners and loggers operate in protected areas.
Argemiro Leite-Filho, an environmental scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, said the link between deforestation and rainfall has become increasingly clear in recent years, worsening the effects of large-scale climate phenomena like La NiÃ±a. A study he conducted to analyze data from 1999 to 2019 showed that for every 10 percent increase in deforestation in the Amazon, the annual rainfall in the biome decreases by 49 millimeters.
Destroying more rainforests – mainly to conquer land and graze cattle – is a form of “agricultural suicide,” he said. He estimates that destruction on this scale will cost the sector about $ 1 billion in losses annually.
“We tried to show that Brazil is shooting itself in the leg with its environmental approach,” he said. “Agriculture is one of the industries most vulnerable to climate variability, especially when it comes to rain.”
Moist air flowing into the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean tends to flow south and create rain, a cycle that scientists call “flying rivers”. Climate change has turned these patterns upside down, said JosÃ© A. Marengo, a climate change expert in SÃ£o Paulo who coined the term “flying rivers”.
âIn the last 20 years, we have had three droughts in the Amazon that were considered the drought of the century and three floods that were also considered the floods of the century,â he said. “So many events in a century that is only 20 years old are strange and show that the climate is becoming more extreme.”