• The Star Staff

Brazil, besieged by COVID, now faces a severe drought


By Manuela Andreoni and Ernesto Londoño


Crops have shriveled up under searing heat. Immense water reservoirs, which generate the bulk of Brazil’s electricity, are growing alarmingly shallow. And the world’s largest waterfall system, Iguaçu Falls, has been reduced from a torrent to a trickle.


As Brazil approaches 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, a worsening drought is imperiling the country’s ability to jump-start its beleaguered economy and may set the stage for another intensely destructive fire season in the Amazon rainforest.


Several states in the country are facing the worst drought in at least 90 years. The crisis has led to higher electricity prices, the threat of water rationing and a disruption of crop-growing cycles. Agriculture, an economic engine of the nation — which relies heavily on hydropower — is now at risk.


Experts said the arid landscape, which coincided with a rise in illegal deforestation over the past months in the Amazon rainforest, could lead to a devastating fire season. Enforcement of environmental regulations is weak in the rainforest, and fire season traditionally begins in July.

“We’re left with a perfect storm,” said Liana Anderson, a biologist who studies fire management at Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. “The scenario we’re in will make it very hard 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 noted that five states — Minas Gerais, Goiás, Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná and Sao Paulo — would face chronic water shortages from June to September.


President Jair Bolsonaro played down the risk of the pandemic last year and has been widely criticized for his cavalier handling of the crisis. But he warned that the drought would disrupt lives and livelihoods in Brazil in the months ahead.


“We’re facing a serious problem,” Bolsonaro said in May, when government officials and analysts began cautioning the country about the potential consequences of the drought. “We’re living through the worst hydrological crisis in history. This will generate headaches.”


Marcelo Seluchi, a meteorologist at the government’s national disaster monitoring center, said the current crisis was years in the making. Since 2014, large regions in central, southeast and western Brazil have experienced below-average rain levels.


“For eight years, it hasn’t been raining as much as it tends to rain,” he said, calling the drought unusually widespread and lengthy. “It’s like a water tank that doesn’t get refilled, and each year we use up more and more, hoping that the following year things will improve, but that better year has yet to come.”


Seluchi said rain patterns that have contributed to the drought were manifold and not fully understood. They include La Nina, a weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean; climate change; and deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes that play a key role in precipitation cycles.

“We can’t deny that climate change, namely global warming, plays a role,” he said. “It’s raining less, and we’re using more water.”


After power outages in 2001, Brazil committed to building increasingly versatile power systems, diversifying its sources beyond hydroelectric plants. Since then, the country has reduced its electrical grid’s reliance on hydropower to 65% from 90%.


While government officials have played down the risk of power cuts, the national electricity agency recently warned that some customers could receive higher electric bills as the country is forced to rely more heavily on more expensive thermoelectric power. The agency urged Brazilians to save energy by taking short showers, using air conditioners more sparingly and running washing machines less frequently.


If government officials manage to avoid water and power cuts this year, the most perceptible consequence of the drought is likely to come during the traditional fire season in the Amazon.

During the first five months of the year, roughly 983 square miles of tree cover was razed in the Amazon, according to preliminary estimates based on satellite images. Deforestation last month was 67% higher than in May 2020, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.


The spike in deforestation comes weeks after the Bolsonaro administration pledged to take assertive measures to curb illegal deforestation. The government has come under pressure from the Biden White House, which is seeking to get all major carbon emitters to commit to ambitious climate change mitigation goals.


Environmentalists in Brazil say the government has weakened its environmental protection agencies in recent years by failing to hire enough personnel, by reducing the number of fines issued for environmental crimes and by supporting industries that are vying for greater access to protected biomes.


Instead of rebuilding the abilities of environmental protection agencies, the Bolsonaro administration outsourced that work to the military, deploying troops to the Amazon in 2019 and 2020. Last week, Vice President Hamilton Mourão announced that the government was starting a new military operation to prevent both illegal deforestation and fires. The initiative is expected to kick off this month and last two months.


The government has promoted the military operations, particularly to international stakeholders, as evidence of its commitment to fight illegal deforestation. But experts say those operations have failed to get to the roots of the problem and have done little to upend 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 precipitation had become increasingly clear in recent years, compounding the effects of large-scale climate phenomena, such as La Nina. A study he conducted analyzing data from 1999 to 2019 showed that for every 10% rise of deforestation in the Amazon, yearly rainfall in the biome drops by 49 millimeters.


Destroying more of the rainforest — mainly to grab land and graze cattle — amounts to a form of “agricultural suicide,” he said. He estimates that destruction at this rate will cost the sector about $1 billion in losses per year.