Dry taps and blackouts
Climate change has started to alter Brazil’s water system. This has an impact on human consumption, agriculture, river transport and also hydroelectric power dams, which are the foundation of the country’s energy portfolio.
Even though Brazil has around 12 per cent of all fresh water available on the planet, it is starting to run out. In the last 30 years, we have lost almost 16 per cent of our surface water, according to data from the MapBiomas project. If things carry on like this, soon the lights will be going out.
The current water crisis is not just a consequence of periodic natural phenomena such as ‘La Niña’, which are exacerbated by climate change. It’s also a result of serious mismanagement of the electric power system by the government.
Water-levels in reservoirs have been very low for several years. The government was banking on rainfall to replenish them but this year the country faces the worst drought in 91 years. And now there are not enough water reserves to get us smoothly through the drought season.
According to Sérgio Cortizo, a climate change and energy expert who works with the government, Brazil did not cotton on that the decrease in reservoirs’ water levels since 2012 was the beginning of a long-term downward trend caused by global heating, not just a natural temporary fluctuation. So it did nothing to prepare.
Cortizo draws this analogy: a hydroelectric dam works like the fuel tank of a car, which is setting off on a long journey. If the driver always half fills the tank, she will rely on stopping at gas stations along the way: if one doesn’t appear for a while, the tank will run dry, and she will be left stranded.
Brazil didn’t worry about filling up the tank and now we using our reserves, with no idea of when we will get to the next gas station and whether it will have enough fuel when we do.
The government plans to hike up electricity prices and is hoping for a deluge of biblical proportions to avoid having to ration both water and electricity. If they are lucky, everything goes back to normal. But if heavy rains don’t come, we could have the worst of all worlds: dry taps and blackouts.
Traditionally in times of crisis, Brazil has switched on thermal power plants to make up the shortfall, but these are more polluting and produce electricity at a higher cost. In other words citizens are already paying much higher prices, from both an economic and environmental point of view, for government mistakes. And thermal power stations that used to be seasonal stop-gaps are gradually becoming permanent.
Jair Bolsonaro’s government could have taken tougher measures last year, when this tragic scenario was already taking shape. But it was afraid of affecting the president’s approval rates and harming his re-election campaign – the only thing that really matters to him.
Since the situation became more acute in mid-2021, the government has belatedly started an ineffective awareness-raising campaign to reduce consumption.
Let us not forget: the rise in energy prices is already one of the main drivers of inflation, which affects mainly the poorest – who, like our hydroelectric dams, have no reserves left.