Drought threatens water-truck lifeline in parched northeast Brazil
25 November 2015
[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or the rural community of Pacheco in northeastern Brazil, the local school has never been so important. It is now the only place in the drought-stricken area that has water on tap. But to fill the school’s tank, water must be trucked from a reservoir some 40 km away - and it is shrinking fast.
“This is the only way to get access to water here. We don’t have any natural source of fresh water available - everything is dry. We are facing a very difficult situation,” said teacher and community leader Josilânia de Fátima dos Santos.
Local residents go to the school each day to fill three or four large buckets with water. The distribution runs smoothly, with everybody cooperating and taking home just enough to supply their family’s drinking, cooking and hygiene needs. “We wish we could have fresh water to drink. We pray for rain - we are desperate,” said dos Santos. “We notice the climate has changed, but we don't know what to do to fight this problem.”
Along with Pacheco, nearly 18,000 inhabitants in the sprawling municipality of Pesqueira in Pernambuco state have no water on tap. Brazil’s northeast is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, which scientists link both to the current strong El Niño weather phenomenon and longer-term climate change.
The semi-arid region has a history of drought, and is vulnerable to hunger and displacement. When crops fail, local people are forced to sell their possessions to pay for new seeds in the hope that rain will come.
Jonas Brito, Pesqueira’s secretary for the environment, said drought had forced the authorities to truck water into rural areas since 2010. But in the past two years, the situation has worsened and is now at crisis point. “We are on the verge of collapse,” he said.
[su_pullquote align="right"]RUINED CROPS[/su_pullquote]
Seventy water trucks ply more than 800 km of dirt roads to supply rural communities in a service provided by the local government to meet the basic needs of the poor. Wealthy landowners pay for private deliveries.
According to official data, 20 to 50 litres per capita are delivered each day. Yet there is not enough water to irrigate crops, which are the main source of local income. Corn, bean and cassava plantations are ruined. Milk production has fallen from 150,000 litres per day to 35,000 litres, as animals die of thirst.
The dam that supplies the water trucks is now operating at half its capacity, Brito said. “Maybe it will be empty next month,” he added. If that happens, the trucks will need to travel further and the cost will rise.
Rainfall in northeastern Brazil is highly irregular, leading to catastrophic droughts – a problem that has occurred every decade or so since the 16th century. Despite this, the city of Pesqueira, 215 km from the Pernambuco state capital of Recife, does not have a plan to deal with the loss of its productive land.
In this region, availability of water is among the lowest in the northeast, at around 40 litres per capita per day. The drought is also affecting city dwellers, as the storage level of another dam that provides water for urban areas has dropped to 10 percent.
In 2014 the federal government launched an online tool to monitor droughts in the northeast. The map shows a dark red stain covering the city of Pesqueira, which means “exceptional drought”. This is also the case in some parts of Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba states. The rest of the map shows “severe drought”.
[su_pullquote align="right"]TEMPERATURE HOTSPOT[/su_pullquote]
Pesqueira had already drawn the attention of scientists in 2007, when José Marengo and Guillermo Obregón of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) conducted research on Brazil’s climate in the 20th century.
The researchers looked at 22 localities across five Brazilian regions: North, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and South. They found the largest temperature rise in Pesqueira, where it increased around 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade from 1981 to 2000.
These local temperature rises are linked to global warming, said the first report of the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change (PBMC), released in January. “The impacts of climate change in Brazil are more evident in the Northeast region,” said Marengo, also an author of reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In addition, droughts in this region have been associated with El Niño, a large-scale interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere linked to periodic warming in Pacific sea surface temperatures. El Niño can influence the regional and global climate, changing wind patterns and affecting rainfall in the tropics and mid-latitudes. If average temperatures continue to rise across continents and oceans, El Niño could occur more often and become more intense, Marengo noted.
Models suggest surface water temperatures in the east-central tropical Pacific Ocean are likely to exceed 2 degrees Celsius above average through the end of this year, potentially placing the 2015-16 El Niño among the four strongest events since 1950. It is already having devastating effects on communities like Pacheco. “We notice the rainfall has decreased, the drought is more intense and it is warmer than before,” said Brito.
To address water shortages in the region, the federal government is implementing a plan to divert part of the flow of the São Francisco River along a canal that will bring water to Pesqueira. Construction is due to be finished by the end of 2016, but that will not bring the urgent relief the people of Pacheco are desperately hoping for. “We need help - we need public policy to fight this problem,” said Brito. “We cannot wait.”