Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Drought in Brazil

By Veronica DicksonPublished March 11, 2015

Brazil is facing the most extreme drought in the last century and has found that current drought management techniques are not the problem. The government has failed to address the issue with sufficient severity and that has affected the way the general populace has handled the problem.

By Veronica Dickson, 3/11/15

An agricultural and industrial world power, Brazil is now facing its worst drought in the last 80 years. About 40 million Brazilians or 20% of the country's population have been affected, the majority of which live in the three most populous states. Sao Paulo, the state responsible for a third of Brazil's Gross Domestic Product has been the most seriously impacted and in 2014 saw 60% less rain than its annual average.

The social and economic impact of the drought is immense and has wrought havoc across the country. The Brazilian economy is heavily dependent on energy generated by massive hydroelectric dams on some of its largest rivers. Water levels in some of these rivers is so low its threatening to force cities and industry to ration electricity. Brazil may have to look at other more costly and environmentally damaging energy alternatives to keep the cities and industries powered up.
Meanwhile last year Brazil may have suffered the worst agricultural losses of the last 50 years.

Corn, sugar cane and soybeans crops are major pillars of the Brazilian economy and their failure would have huge knock-on effects across several different industries. The corn-producing Uberaba region, the most important in Sao Paulo state, has been placed under emergency since November of last year. Local farmers are struggling to make ends meet and have not been able to obtain enough water to irrigate their fields. Social unrest is also a risk.

The Brazilian government has managed serious drought conditions in the past; there are time-tested policies and management techniques built over the years that deal with similar environmental hazards. In fact, the threat of climate change is an effective incentive to begin improving upon the current drought management system in place. As water scarcity is common, Brazil generally institutes an emergency response and furthers work on large water infrastructure projects. However the current administration of President Dilma Rousseff was late to recognize the severity of the problem. While they may not be responsible for the drought, they carry the burden for being late with effective solutions and poor policy. As late as February the Minister of Agriculture Kátia Abreu insisted the drought was "not causing a deep crisis" and argued the drought would not seriously impact agriculture production. Both the local and state government have publicly announced that they will not ration water, seeing as the drought has not reached emergency levels yet. This is proving to be difficult for many Brazilians to swallow. Many citizens report interruptions in their water supply, periods where water is unavailable and other indicators of water cuts. The Deputy Minister of Mines and Energy Eduardo Braga was famously reported as saying, "You can do any risk calculation you like, but you can be very sure rationing will not occur," a statement now viewed as rash and irresponsible.

There have been a few emergency announcements in states, but for the most part Brazil wants to "shift away from reactionary drought response". As such, private firms have decided to take matters into their own hands. Currently Brazil is working on large infrastructure projects to mitigate the effects of drought. This has proven effective so far and institutionalizing the private water firms will allow for a more even allotment of materials.

With some luck the rainy season will make a comeback and provide much needed water. Should the drought continue, however, it is the prerogative of both state and federal governments to begin implementing more severe drought management techniques.