An uncertain liquid
Man’s existence depends on the existence of water. Not only the protean soup that gave us life billions of years ago, but also, and especially, because of what we have done with the rivers and lakes that nature has provided us. It was no accident that human civilization took its first leap forward in Mesopotamia, the place whose name means “between two rivers”. Later, it was along the banks of the Nile, the Indus, the Yellow, the Danube, the Amazon, and the many other waterways that we learned to use water resources for the sole purpose of quenching our thirst for civilization. Our thirst was so strong, however, that we arrive in the 21st century with the realization that what seemed improbable has come to pass: the slow and perhaps irreversible decline of our most valuable natural resource. Yes, the sources have begun to dry up. And everything seems to indicate that from now on, water’s existence will depend on man.
Not that there won’t be any more of it—the global hydrologic cycle guarantees that water’s forms on Earth will continue to supply one another as long as living creatures breathe and the seas evaporate. But it could, indeed, disappear from our view. We have to consider that of all the planet’s existing water (some 1.4 billion cubic kilometers), 97.5% lies in the oceans and is therefore practically useless to humans. The water that allows us to live comprises a mere 2.5% of the total, and 75% of this mass is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The fresh water within our reach, then, is a miserable 0.5%, much of which is stored under the earth in aquifers and groundwater and not always easy to reach. The so-called surface water comprises only 0.015% of the world total. In other words: if all the water on the planet could fit into a 20 liter bottle, the part we can use wouldn’t even fill a cup, and the water from all our rivers and lakes would fit inside a single drop.
The problem is that we are drinking from this cup—or dirtying its contents— faster than nature can refill it. And judging from the rate at which global demand is growing, the situation is certain to become serious in coming decades. Just look at the numbers: in 1900, the world consumed 580 cubic kilometers of water. In the year 2000, this number had jumped to 3,970—a sevenfold increase over 100 years. This is startling data unto itself, but even more alarming is when we consider that over the same period, world population only increased half as much, by about 3.5 times. This means we are taking twice as much water out of nature than we were a hundred years ago, especially in order to feed an increasingly hungry planet: agriculture alone soaks up 70% of the world’s water consumption for irrigation.
This would be enough to make a mass of people thirsty, as in fact is the case with the Aral Sea—at one time Asia’s second largest lake—which lost 2/3 of its volume to irrigation in the fields around it. Or on the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, which dried up because its water was diverted to farms in Texas. But waste alone does not justify why, when the 21st century had barely begun, 1.4 billion people (20% of the world population) already didn’t have enough water. We also have to consider misuse of another kind—previous to the well-publicized changes in climate which seem less to be a main player in the sparse water scenario than a mercy shot to a resource already in agony because of the excesses of human civilization. Which are many.
The re-routing of rivers for building dikes, canals and hydroelectric dams is one example--there are an estimated 800,000 in the world today. Another is the systematic deforestation of riverbank vegetation, causing excess silt in riverbeds and decreased recharging of water to aquifers. Then there is poor water resource management by governments, resulting in inefficient basic sanitation and significant loss due to infrastructure leaks, or the appropriation of water sources by large corporations for use. Oftentimes the resources are used until they run dry. And the worst: contamination due to industrial, farming and domestic sewer waste. Above all, the world is also lacking clean water.
One in ten of the planet’s inhabitants has no access to clean drinking water. This number amounts to some 748 million people. Imagine twice the population of the United States drinking water from muddy rivers and unprotected wells, with no filtering resources. In countries like Mozambique and The Democratic Republic of Congo, over half the population has no water supply. The worst part is that in most cases, these people end up consuming water contaminated by their own sewage.
Basic sanitation conditions worldwide are even more precarious, especially in developing nations. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a third of the planet’s inhabitants is lacking adequate sanitation, ranging from sewage collection and treatment to the mere existence of a bathroom. There are more people on the planet today with a mobile phone in their hand than with a toilet at home. Some 14% of the world population, for example, still defecates outside. The result is appalling: over 2,000 people die from diarrhea every day as result of drinking contaminated water because they don’t have basic sanitation. Most are children under 5 years of age—one dies every minute. Probably before you have finished reading this page.
In other words: not only is water on Earth scarce, but when we have it, it can be deadly. It can take out hundreds of lives in one swipe with floods, landslides, storms and typhoons—these, effects of global climate change, which oftentimes worsen living conditions that are already tragic enough as it is. In 2014, a single mudslide swept away an entire city in Afghanistan. And when there isn’t too much water, there’s not enough. Severe droughts are thrashing regions all over the globe, from California, which is experiencing its longest dry spell in the last 1,000 years, to Somalia, where some 260,000 people died of hunger between 2011 and 2012. It was no accident that the first decade of the 21st century had the hottest years since global records began in 1850.
The fact is that over the last 60 years, the frequency of natural geological disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves showed no increase. But natural climatic disasters—both due to the excess and the lack of water—tripled in number between 1980 and 2010. Behind them is the inescapable fact that the planet is warming, certainly as result of record levels of pollution released into the atmosphere. And water is the main vehicle by which this is interfering in our lives, especially fresh water. Even a small increase in global temperatures means changes in rain patterns, in the flow of rivers, drying springs and melting snow and ice in mountains and on polar ice caps. And how does this affect us? Hotter summers, colder winters, drier deserts, more ferocious winds and more intense rainstorms. We will also be affected by thousands of deaths, severe drop-offs in crop yields and an even thirstier planet.
Aside from the water collapse, the 21st century may also be wrought with increasing wars over water. Not that this is anything new: the oldest record of this type of dispute dates to 2500 BC, in Mesopotamia, when the king of a Sumerian city state diverted the Tigris River, leaving its neighboring city high and dry. And many other conflicts, some with great impact, have been mostly about access to freshwater sources. Examples are Sudan’s civil war, China’s invasion of Tibet and the fight in the Jordan River Valley between Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.
But it is a fact that disputes have intensified in recent decades as competition for the remaining water sources increases. It is no coincidence that the word “rivalry” stems from the Latin rivalis, used in Roman times to designate people who use resources from the same river. And hydric rivals –pardon the redundancy—have, effectively, multiplied all over the world, as thoroughly documented by the North American Pacific Institute since the 1980s. There have already been some 180 conflicts over water counted this century—three times more than in the previous two decades—some of which quite turbulent, as in the case of the 2000 Guerra da Água [Water War] in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when privatization of the water supply system set off a popular revolt.
If going to war over water seems unthinkable, consider that the United Nations estimates there are good chances that half the world population will be suffering from some sort of water shortage in 2030. If measures aren’t taken before then, the number of lives lost because of water—as result of illness, climate change or violence—will be even greater. Luckily, there have been steps forward. Global indices for basic sanitation, for example, are improving, and some goals were reached even before target dates. At the same time, though, nations suffering from chronic water shortage for years, if not centuries, are seriously engaged in finding solutions that don’t depend on direct exploitation of the resource. Such is the case of countries in the Persian Gulf, which have invested millions of dollars in seawater desalinization plants. The largest of these, located in Saudi Arabia, can produce 800,000 cubic meters of fresh water daily. And even better, it also generates electric power.
Recycled sewer water has also been widely used, mostly by industry, in Brazil as well as other countries, especially in countries with an arid climate like Israel, where half the water used in irrigation comes from reuse. Or Namibia, where the population has been drinking treated sewer water since 1968. More intelligent irrigation models are also appearing, able to reduce volumes by half. And we are seeing numerous river cleanup projects like the one on the Rhine, one of Europe’s largest rivers, transformed from the open sewer it was into a waterway usable for recreation. Thanks to the collective forces of many countries and organizations, both state and privately run, all native fish species had returned to swim in the river 20 years after the cleanup began.
This shows us that cooperation can be a good strategy in times of water collapse and in this sense, we really haven’t done so badly. According to the UN, over 1,200 international treaties having to do with water have been signed over the last 50 years, as compared to 500 conflicts. In spite of the evident increase in water disputes, the number of diplomatic solutions have been multiplying even faster, evidence of at least a willingness to talk. Only the future can tell if it will be enough.
BRAZIL: A HYDRIC NATION
“There is much water; it’s endless. This land is gracious in such a way that any endeavor here would be fruitful because of the abundance of water,” wrote Pero Vaz da Caminha in his letter to the king of Portugal about our continent when he arrived as part of Pedro Cabral’s fleet. What Brazil’s first scribe claimed was later to be proven by science: this land is home to 55,000 kilometers of navigable rivers and some 23,000 lakes, channels and reservoirs, aside from over 100 trillion cubic meters of water stored underground. Our country’s water reserve composes 12% of all the world’s available fresh water—for only 3% of the global population. This supposed abundance, as we will see below, is an illusion because not all Brazilians have the same access to water. But it is an undeniable fact that, in terms of the resource, we are one of the world’s greatest water powers. Brazil is to water what Saudi Arabia is to oil.
WHERE THERE IS PLENTY
Three fourths of our water resources are found in one watershed, the Amazon basin. It is not only the world’s largest river basin in terms of area, but also the one providing the planet’s greatest volume of fresh water: the Amazon basin supplies the ocean and the atmosphere with some 37 trillion liters of water every day. Nearly half of this is through a single outlet, the Amazon River, which along its 6,992 kilometers receives water from over 1,000 tributaries, releasing them to the Atlantic in one formidable torrent. The Amazon alone carries 15% of all the planet’s river water. The other 20 trillion liters of water are released through transpiration from trees in the Amazon jungle: it has been calculated that large species such as the sumaúma tree (Ceiba pentandra) can produce as many as 1,000 liters a day.
All this water—flowing into the ocean and being perspired by the forest—ends up in the atmosphere, which then returns the humidity to the continent in the form of rain. The forest actually helps in this process: it is believed that the volume of water vapor generated by the trees has a pumping effect on the winds that blow in from the Atlantic. It’s as if the Amazon were thirsty and sucked even more water toward itself. The power of this vegetational pump is such that the rain clouds travel as far as the slopes of the Andes. There, they bump into the mountains, feed the headwaters of rivers in the Amazon watershed and then head south in what researchers have called “flying rivers”: masses of air headed back to the middle of the continent loaded with humidity. There are strong indications that if it weren’t for the rains coming from the Amazon, the land in Brazil’s CentralSouth wouldn’t be nearly so fertile. This explains why inland São Paulo State is an exception among the regions crossed by the Tropic of Capricorn, nearly all of which are deserts.
If such is the case, it is quite probable that the planet’s largest tropical forest held an important role in the formation of Brazil’s other large rivers. The São Francisco, Paraná, Paraguai, Araguaia and Tocantins Rivers are all born in southern Amazonia, and all within the Cerrado biome, considered to be a sort of national water tank responsible for feeding 8 of Brazil’s 12 hydrographic regions. Thanks to the characteristics of its soil, rainwater in the Cerrado filters in and remains underground year round, allowing rivers to be fed from it even in the dry months.
The fact that it is located on a high elevated plain at the center of the country also makes it easier for the rivers of the Cerrado to flow to lower regions, benefiting millions of people, especially in the Northeast and Central-South. Nine in ten Brazilians use electric power generated at least in part by the waters of the Cerrado. It’s only in the Pantanal that such blessings overflow to the point of being a hindrance: because it is an expansive depression with little slope and only one outlet (the Rio Paraguai), the water running down from the high plains to the Pantanal has nowhere to go but to flood, transforming the region into the planet’s largest wetland. From May to July, a fourth of the land in the region becomes one vast sea of freshwater.
Aside from the bounty of water running on the surface, underground reserves containing an estimated 240 trillion cubic meters also lie underfoot. For thousands of years, rainwater filtering into the soil and rock has flowed sometimes hundreds of meters deep in invisible rivers to wait in these deposits. When these waters lie close to the surface, they are called unconfined aquifers, or the water table, accessed by groundwater wells like those in the backyards of homes. If they are deeper, they form confined aquifers, farther from the surface and therefore less susceptible to pollution. It is better quality water, and reachable by artesian wells.
Some 60% of the Brazilian population gets its water directly from aquifers. This especially helps supply in rural areas, as it is a simple and affordable way to gain access without the need for a distribution network. One the other hand, if wells are poorly dug, there is risk of water table contamination. It has been calculated that the 300,000 wells registered in Brazil are only 20% of the existing total, so it is not a small risk. In other words, there may be over a million clandestine wells taking water out of the ground without being subject to any controls.
There are 27 identified aquifers in Brazil, most of which located in the Northeast, where they help ease effects of the region’s dryness. But the largest in the country (and the world) underlies Amazonia, running from the state of Acre to Amapá. Previously called the Alter do Chão Aquifer, the Greater Amazon Aquifer System (GAAS) is an underground ocean of drinking water with a volume estimated at 160 trillion cubic meters. This is four times the amount of water in the Amazon rainforest, river water and forest transpiration together. It is also three times the volume found in the Guarani Aquifer, previously considered our largest reserve of hidden water. But unlike the Amazon Aquifer, the Guarani has been not only widely studied but also exploited: today it supplies, at least in part, two thirds of the municipalities in São Paulo State.
As for our surface water, the fact that Brazil has one of the planet’s most extensive river networks in no product of chance. If it weren’t for the rivers, we would certainly not have become the fifth largest country in the world. Historically the waterways played a crucial role in expanding the national territory, serving as liquid inroads from the coast used to settle inland regions. Navigating the Tietê, the Paraná and the Paraguay Rivers, explorers from São Paulo called bandeirantes pushed back the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, forcing the Spanish to hand over western Brazil to the Portuguese crown. Colonists left sugarcane plantations via the mouth of the Rio São Francisco to spread across the dry back country, or sertão. And the Portuguese settled Amazonia while exploring the Amazon River in search of spices.
The population established in intimate relationship with fresh water in all corners of the country. When not given mythical attributes, waters were given supernatural powers or were occupied by imaginary beings, both protective and menacing figures. And Brazilians combined knowledge from both the native peoples and the Portuguese to make better use of the resource and guarantee supply and survival for entire communities as long as there was at least a stream nearby. We inherited innumerous fishing techniques from the native tribes as well as know-how about canoe navigation and how to use lowlands to grow food during the dry season. The Portuguese, in turn, taught us to build a system of channels connecting springs to villages and use water power for running mills and water wheels. The water wheel, incidentally, was one of the dynamos that drove the sugar industry throughout the first three centuries of Brazil’s colonial period.
In spite of the leap in industrialization the country has taken in recent decades, there are still many places in Brazil where methods for using water resources are similar or identical to those used 200 or 300 years ago. This is especially true in Amazonia, where difficult access means maintenance had to be possible according to nature’s whims, and wisely integrated with it. In the world’s largest tropical forests, riverbank communities adapt their routines according to the time of year and what the waters are up to.
During the wet or “full” season, referred to locally as “winter”, the waters rise to touch the crowns of the trees and people retreat to homes built on stilts as much as 4 meters tall. In May, the rivers and inlets return to their respective beds and channels, and so-called “summer” begins. Ponds left behind by receding waters hold fish good for eating and nutrients left in the soil help farming, especially of manioc root. It is the beginning of the agricultural year, as it has been since before the Portuguese arrived.
The Amazon, where people fish purarucus with harpoons, is also the nation’s energy frontier—not unlike the rest of Brazil, where artisan means for using water resources coexist with industrial-scale freshwater use, oftentimes on the same river. Such is the case, for example, with Brazil’s waterways. There, canoes and powerboats circulate alongside a good share of the country’s grain and ore production, some 80 million tons per year according to the National Waterway Transportation Agency. In the case of hydroelectric dams, these two worlds oftentimes enter into conflict, as installation of plants can require the removal of entire communities in flood areas, as happened in the dramatic cases of Balbina and Sobradinho in the 1970s and 80s. An estimated 1 million Brazilians, mostly native peoples, have lost their homes to due to hydroelectric dam construction.
However, the immense power potential of Brazilian Rivers cannot be ignored. If on the one hand, plants come at heavy social and environmental cost due to flooding, on the other they guarantee plenty of clean energy. And this makes all the difference: in 2013, water generated 70% of all Brazil’s electric energy. This number is surpassed only by Norway, where hydroelectric plants produce virtually all the power consumed in the country. We also rank second in generation: 430 terawatts/hour that year. Only China produces more.
Since the first plant was inaugurated in 1883 in Diamantina, over 1,000 hydroelectric centers have been built throughout the Brazilian territory. Another 200 are slated for completion by 2020, including Belo Monte in Pará State, which will have the world’s third largest installed capacity of some 11,000 MW, trailing only to Three Gorges in China and Itaipu on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Another 30 plants are expected to come on stream in Amazonia during the same time period, making the state’s rivers the sources of nearly half the nation’s electric power before the first third of the 21st century is over. The debate at present is the cost this will carry for the forest.
WHERE IT IS SCARCE
If the 24 trillion liters of water that flow across the Brazilian territory every day were distributed equally among all its inhabitants, each of us would have 120,000 liters a day to enjoy—seven times the world average. But in practice, the distribution of water resources is as unjust as the distribution of income in the country. This is as much for geographic reasons as economic and social reasons. For example, Amazonia, home to 7% of the population, is also home to about 70% of Brazil’s fresh water, while in the Northeast, 27% of the nation’s people has to get by on only 3% of the water. Even in the Southeast, a region which historically doesn’t suffer from severe drought, only 6% of the country’s water supply has to be enough for 40% of the population and still drive an economy that makes up half the national GDP.
In other words, where water is abundant, people are scarce, and where people are abundant, water is scarce. While in the wealthier regions like in the state of São Paulo this deficit was resolved through construction of hydroelectric plants and wide reaching distribution networks, in poorer regions the population has no choice but to face water shortage as an inevitable fact around which life must be adjusted. Consider the semi-arid Northeast, where the evaporation rate is one of the highest in the world, three times greater than the average local rainfall. The rainy season is already short—some three months per year—and, when it does rain, the water doesn’t have much place to go because beneath the thin layer of topsoil lies a thick later of impermeable crystalline rock. This plus the intense sunlight typical of lower latitudes means evaporation of the water accumulated on the surface accelerates, preventing rivers from forming that are strong enough to cross the sertão and reach the ocean.
Two thirds of all families living in the rural areas of the semi-arid zone have no running water in their homes, so people are forced to use various methods for extracting and storing water to keep from dying of thirst during the dry months. Many dig wells or build ponds and holding tanks, while others depend on frequent visits to reservoirs, oftentimes located some kilometers away and requiring long daily walks which are nearly always carried out by women and children. There are some 70,000 reservoirs spread across the Northeast which would provide the population in the semi-arid zone with the 110 liters of water daily stipulated by the WHO as minimum necessary for meeting a person’s basic needs. The problem is that families don’t always have access to the water because reservoirs in the region are often privatized by large landowners who use public resources intended to combat drought for irrigation of their own crops and to quench the thirst of their cattle.
Which leads us to the fact that, even in an arid region like the Brazilian Northeast, the lack of water is more a question of political and economic interest than an environmental one. Such is the case throughout Brazil—with the difference that, where water is more abundant, the abuses are more subtle. For example, agriculture used 40 billion cubic meters of water in 2012, mostly due to inefficient irrigation systems like flooding (in rice cultivation) and sprinklers (imitating rain through fixed or mobile jets). It is estimated that central sprinkler systems—where the sprinkling is carried out through pipes that spin on their own axis—lose about 50% of the water between the valve and the ground. This is particularly serious when water is scarce, as 72% of all fresh water consumed in Brazil goes to growing food.
Every kilo of corn grown, for example, uses 1.75 liters of fresh water. To grow white rice, 2,500 liters of water are used to grow each kilogram between the field and processing. Coffee drinks up even more: one kilo consumes some 19,000 liters along the entire production chain. In other words, each cup of coffee you drink costs nature nothing less than 132 liters of water. This is what we call a “water footprint”: the amount of water spent during the generation of a product with commercial value. Environmentalists tend to divide it into three types of water: green water, which comes from rainfall; blue water, taken from rivers and lakes; and gray water, the volume needed to dilute the pollutant load released into nature. All this makes up a part of every product you buy at the grocery store as well as each container leaving our ports on cargo ships every day destined for the global market. In 2011, Brazil exported 112 trillion liters of so-called “virtual water”, consumed in food production—enough to supply one fourth of the world’s population. This is one of the greatest challenges of the century: how to feed a hungry planet without wasting so much water.
Industry also leaves its water footprint: a textile factory, for example, uses 10,000 liters of water for each kilo of cotton. So when you buy a T-shirt, an invisible consumption of 2,500 liters of water comes along with it. If it’s a pair of jeans, it will be 8,000 liters. Much less, however, than a ton of paper, which requires some 500,000 liters of fresh water during manufacture—beginning with farming the trees for pulp through finishing—aside from the water used to clean equipment, control temperature and generate energy. Each sheet of office paper drinks up no less than 2 liters of water.
The numbers are high, but compared with agriculture the impact is smaller because Brazilian industries normally recycle the water used in their production chains. One reason is the Water Resources Use Taxation Law, instated by the Federal government in 1997, requiring that water taken from rivers by industry be paid for. A similar model has been in effect in the state of São Paulo since 2005. With more expensive water and a market demanding greater production, factories had no other option but to find more rational ways to use their water. One is reuse. In Brazil, industry’s share is only 7% of the total fresh water consumption—less than cattle farming’s share, which today is about 12%.
Another of the country’s big drains is urban water supply, which composes 9% of the water consumed in Brazil. Not only is per capita consumption higher than it should be (nearly 60 liters a day more than the amount recommended by the World Health Organization on average) but oftentimes the water doesn’t even manage to reach its destination. Leaks caused by defects, worn out pipelines and poorly executed construction cause water to be lost on the way from reservoir to residence. The Instituto Trata Brasil has reported that a third of the water in the Brazilian distribution system is lost even before it reaches faucets. This amount could supply the city of São Paulo for five years. The National Water Agency claims that this situation will lead to water supply problems in half of all Brazilian municipalities by the year 2020. The cost for repairs including infrastructure works and improvements to the water collection and treatment network is estimated to be something around 70 billion reais.
An even greater and harder-to-measure cost is that of recuperating degraded water sources—another of the crucial reasons that water drips, not pours from our faucets today. As if waste during consumption and and distribution weren’t enough, sources of fresh water are also showing the effects of irresponsible human behavior. We are now paying the price for thinking it was an infinite resource. As we know, forests are vital for maintenance of the planet’s hydrologic cycle: they raise humidity levels in the atmosphere, reduce erosion by maintaining soil with their roots and therefore avoid silting up rivers, and they act as a filter, removing contaminants from rainwater and allowing it to reach rivers and water tables in a purer condition. It has been calculated that the cost of water treatment is ten times less in regions protected by forests.
Given this fact, public agencies shouldn’t question the worth of preserving forests in regions with water sources, especially in large metropolitan areas. But of course, this isn’t what happens in Brazil: pushed to the outskirts of urban areas by rising property prices, the low income population is forced to occupy land that should be protected. There, on the shores of reservoirs, on floodplains or near to headwaters, millions of people ignored by governing forces build homes without access to any sort of infrastructure. Where there once stood a forest, dirt roads appear that can’t absorb rain water, which then not only stops feeding the groundwater supply but also runs, full of dirt, directly into springs. These, in turn, become clogged with garbage and sediment, causing riverbeds to be more shallow. The result: during the dry season, the rivers are so full of silt that they can’t fully supply the population. And when heavy rains come, they overflow more easily and cause floods.
Then this river water, which already isn’t much, is bombarded with the tons of pollutants released by croplands, pastures and factories, in addition to urban waste. Some of this waste comes from illegal discharge by industry, but most contamination is due to lacking public sanitation systems. Sewer collection, for example, reaches only half the Brazilian population—there are more homes with televisions in the country than homes with a connection to a sewer system. And only a little more than a third of the sewage actually collected receives any treatment. The rest amounts to some 8 billion liters of raw sewage heading straight into our rivers, lakes and ocean every day.
Contaminated water, lacking sanitation, high waste levels, deforestation, loss during distribution, ineffective management—all these contribute significantly to Brazil’s water shortage. And none of these causes is natural. Natural causes do in fact exist—even though their cause is most likely increased pollution released into the atmosphere from human activity. The effects of climate imbalance have mostly been droughts, floods, landslides, cyclones and frosts. According to the Brazilian Atlas of Natural Disasters, some 30,000 events were recorded between 1990 and 2010 in Brazil, affecting 100 million people. Half the disasters were drought-related, extending from the Northeast (whose dry spell is its worst in 50 years) to Amazonia (which suffered record droughts in 2005 and 2010, the last of which affected two thirds of the rainforest). And of course the Southeast, where even the source of the Rio São Francisco in southern Minas Gerais State dried up.
A drop in rainfall did worsen the water crisis in Brazil’s three richest states (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais) but, as we have seen, it did nothing more than accelerate a collapse that was already evident in the countryside and suburbs. Take the São Paulo Metropolitan Region as an example: 40% of the sewage is not treated, 35% of the water is lost through leaks in the distribution network and 80% of the original vegetation in the Cantareira region—responsible for supplying half the population’s water—has been devastated. This meant that even before the drought began, each inhabitant had only 380 liters a day to drink, prepare food, bathe, flush, clean the house and wash clothes, among other activities. It’s the same amount as people have in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan, whose territory is 90% desert.
WHAT WE CAN DO SO IT DOESN’T RUN OUT
In October 2014, one of the most critical moments in southeastern Brazil’s water collapse, 70 municipalities in São Paulo State were suffering from water shortages, most of them near to the capital city. But the water levels in a town just an hour from downtown São Paulo and less than 40 kilometers from one of the Cantareira System reservoirs were practically normal. In spite of the fact that not a single drop of rain had fallen on the city, Jundiaí was a sort of a water crisis oasis. The secret lay in actions taken by the City Hall a few years before, anticipating a lack of water in the region. One was improvements to the sanitation network—100% of the sewage produced in the urban area today is collected and treated—and construction of a new reservoir able to function as a “savings account” during hard times.
The state government also took similar measures—including plans to build reservoirs and water transposition systems from other watersheds—but they were at least a decade too late. Not only will they take years to be completed, but they also depend on one crucial factor: rain. Which didn’t fall. So emergency measures were the only ones left to be taken in minimizing the effects of dry faucets: rationing, reduced pressure in distribution pipes and a discount for customers who cut down on consumption. Cloud seeding was even used over the reservoirs, a resource not foreign to Brazil, especially in the semi-arid regions and also used in São Paulo State during a similar crisis in the 1960s. The technique consists of bombarding clouds with molecules that stimulate the formation of raindrops. Silver iodide, dry ice, drinking water and even table salt have all been used.
Obviously, none of these are more than palliative measures. Environmentalists agree that prevention of a water crisis, especially in a country with abundant resources like Brazil, begins with the urgent need to invest in recuperating the water we have already lost. This includes improvements to distribution networks to reduce leaks and increasing sewage collection and treatment as an attempt to bring reeking rivers back to life. Revitalizing drinking water sources is also crucial, as was done in Extrema, a municipality next to the largest reservoir in the Cantareira System in Minas Gerais State. In 2005, it became the first town in Brazil to pass legislation for a payment system to protect and recuperate water sources. It made land owners into “water producers”: every hectare preserved, either through planting trees or not cutting the ones already there, was paid for with funds from public agencies, private enterprise and non-profit organizations. By the end of seven years, 500 springs had been recuperated and 7,000 hectares of land reforested, which made up a third of the municipality’s land area.
At any rate, since we know that it’s nearly impossible to ever again enjoy the same level of abundance we once did, from now on we will have to learn to live with an increasingly drier reality. In water crisis-ridden São Paulo, for example, the use of household water filtering and rain barrels has increased significantly. It’s a model similar to that adopted in the northeastern sertão, on an infinitely larger scale, by the Articulação do Semiárido (ASA) network, composed of some 800 entities. Boasting 1 Million Cisterns, the program has been installing one water barrel per family in the region since 2003. The barrels have capacity to hold enough rainwater to last through 8 months of drought. For millions of people, it’s the end of long walks to reservoirs (when access is permitted, of course) and also the water trucks, especially those belonging to city governments which all too often use water to buy votes.
And while they fill up their water barrels, families in the sertão also await the arrival of water from the Rio São Francisco, which will be transported via kilometers of a complex canal, tunnel and dam system. Brazil’s largest water project in recent decades, the system is expected to quench the thirst of 390 municipalities in the Northeast with water from “Old Chico”.
But both scenarios, rain barrels and channeled water, depend on rain. And rain, as we have seen, doesn’t always fall. So existing water—be it from the ocean or from sewage—will have to be used and transformed into, if not drinkable, water at least usable for industry, irrigation and domestic use. Ocean water is most expensive due to the amount of energy needed to run desalinization plants, but it has been used to provide drinking water for inhabitants and tourists in the Fernando de Noronha archipelago off the northeast corner of Brazil for years. A less expensive option is to process brackish water, which has a lower salt content. The Federal Programa Água Doce [Fresh Water Program] takes brackish water out of the ground in the sertão and desalinates it, providing water for around 100,000 people in the Northeast and in Minas Gerais State today.
Recycled or reclaimed water is of course a much more widely available resource, especially in Brazil’s metropolitan regions. In greater São Paulo, City Halls from Barueri, Diadema and São Caetano together with the capital city itself buy treated sewage from SABESP (the state water and waste management company) to wash sidewalks and water green spaces. In Niterói, Rio de Janeiro State, reuse is the law: since 2011, any building larger than 500 square meters is required to recycle bath, sink and washing machine water. It is still not used for drinking water, but this may change soon: in Campinas, São Paulo State, the local water company (SANASA) is already turning treated sewage into potable water—cleaner, even, than the water in the Capivari River, which cuts through the city. Only legal and psychological barriers are keeping it from being distributed for use by the population—not everyone has adapted to the idea of drinking water that may have passed through their toilet at some time in the past.
Industry was the first sector to use recycled water in Brazil, as we have already seen. Given the millions of liters needed for any supply chain, either as raw material, solvent, to generate energy, to control temperature of machinery or to clean installations, factories were the first to anticipate a possible shortage. Brazilian pulp and paper mills, for example, managed to reduce previous consumption of 100,000 liters per ton by half over three decades. In the beverage industry, a large water consumer, Ambev’s example was to save 14 billion liters of water in its beer and soft drink factories over ten years’ time—enough to supply water to a city the size of Salvador for a month.
Agriculture hasn’t made much progress in the use of recycled water for irrigation, but there are many pilot projects underway around the country today. For now, farmers have been focusing on less wasteful irrigation methods such as drip irrigation, invented in Israel in the1960s and widely used today in Brazil’s northeastern sugarcane fields, where it resulted in a 50% increase in productivity. The technique consists of watering plantations through hoses placed on the ground near to the roots which drip water through tiny holes. In the Bahian sertão, drip irrigation economized half the water and increased melon crop yields by 400%.
Methods like these will be important in a future with an increasingly thirsty outlook and, given the constant growth of world population, an increasingly hungry one as well. And worse: increasingly hotter, as climate change is expected to have great impact on food production. We must, urgently, entirely rethink the way we use water today. A dry faucet when we want to wash the dishes is one thing, but in a few years, there could be a lack of food. Educating people to consume responsibly helps: a simple habit like turning off the water while brushing your teeth can save up to 1,000 liters per month. In Mexico City, City Hall replaced 350,000 toilets with water-saving models and the water left over is enough to supply 250,000 people.
It helps, but it’s not enough. Environmentalists are calling for water resource management models that involve all interested parties—especially the people. The idea came from France, the first nation to propose decentralized water use management in the 1960s involving public participation. In Brazil, the idea was used in 1988 to establish the Comitês de Bacias Hidrográficas [Watershed Committees], which bring together representatives of the three concerned segments (government, civil organizations like non-profits and universities, and large users like industry, farming and cattle raising and hydroelectric plants) to determine the best policies for the use and preservation of rivers and lakes.
The committees establish, for example, how much water can be consumed in a certain watershed and how much will be charged for it, as well as mediate any conflicts. There are already over 200 of these committees throughout Brazil, but the result is less inspiring than the idea: in many cases, decisions have been taken without forming a Watershed Committee or even without consulting one that actually exists.
Once again, public and economic interests displace human need. As it has always been, without our realizing what was going on. But now that everyone is thirsty, things may change (one hopes). We already know where there is water and we know where to get it. And we are, for the first time, learning not to waste it. If there is a silver lining to a water crisis, it is the alarm that’s been set off—like a sudden pain that needs immediate medical attention. The difference is that, this time, the doctors are all of us.