Brazil water study and MapBiomas data show 15% of freshwater resources lost
The MapBiomas study did not establish to what extent Brazil’s decline in water resources was due to natural causes. But experts have warned that human activity is affecting global weather patterns, causing more frequent extreme events, such as severe droughts and floods. Cutting and burning forests, building large hydroelectric plants and dams or reservoirs to irrigate crops all contribute to changing natural patterns, said Mazeika Patricio Sullivan, a professor of ecology at Ohio State University.
“We are altering the magnitude of those natural processes,” said Sullivan, a wetland expert who has studied water systems in the United States, South America, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. “This is not only happening in Brazil, it is happening all over the world.”
Sullivan said the MapBiomas data was “amazing,” though not surprising; Nearly 90 percent of South America’s wetland area is estimated to have disappeared since 1900, and nearly 40 percent in North America, he said. Wetlands are essential for many wildlife species and key to retaining water that is gradually released into rivers, preventing flooding.
In the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, water that evaporates then travels in air currents to provide rain in distant places. But some climate experts argue that the Amazon is heading towards a “tipping point” in 10 to 15 years: if too much forest is destroyed, the Amazon would initiate an irreversible process of degradation towards the tropical savanna.
There are more immediate sources of alarm, such as a possible electricity rationing this year. Hydroelectric reservoirs have been drained by a decade of lower than usual rains. The reservoirs in the Paraná river basin, which feeds the São Paulo metropolis and several states, have never been so depleted, the network operator said this month.
The Paraná River runs from Brazil to Argentina and along its course are the iconic Iguazú Falls on the border of nations; the majestic waterfalls remained unrecognizable for a few days in June, having been reduced to a trickle. The Paraná waterway and its aquifers supply some 40 million people with fresh water and a livelihood for fishing communities and farmers.
Brazil’s Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque called a press conference on August 25 to deny the possibility of rationing, while at the same time calling on companies and individuals to reduce energy consumption. Some analysts have speculated that the disdain is politically motivated ahead of an election year.
“At the current rate, blackouts are likely to occur this year, especially during peak hours,” said Nivalde de Castro, coordinator of the electricity sector studies group at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Declining water resources also runs the risk of exacerbating the fires that people often set during the southern hemisphere winter to clear pastures, which then spiral out of control.
Last year, more than a quarter of Brazil’s Pantanal caught fire. It was by far the worst annual devastation since authorities began keeping records in 2003.
The Pantanal has a great regeneration capacity if given the opportunity to do so without repeated burning events. A wave of fires in the past week raised concern among locals.
“Once again, the specter of fires is back,” said Angelo Rabelo, president of a local environmental group that oversees a protected area of some 300,000 hectares. Last year, 90 percent of their land was damaged by flames.
Researchers from Mato Grosso State University found that parts of the Pantanal in 2019 had 13% more days without rainfall compared to the 1960s. Coinciding with the MapBiomas study, their findings also showed that salt marshes were losing surface water. .
“The scenario is even worse this year: drier and with less water,” said Rabelo from Corumba, a municipality in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
For Rabelo and others, last year’s fires were a wake-up call. He formed a seven-person full-time private fire brigade, the first from the Pantanal. They are better trained and have been able to respond faster so far, before the fires get out of control.
But there are new challenges ahead. In areas without roads, navigation on smaller rivers can become problematic due to low water levels, Rabelo said. That means firefighters could soon have trouble reaching some flames and, even if they can, less water is available to extinguish them.
“Integrating water loss and wildfires – that’s a big topic that we need to start thinking about more,” Sullivan said.