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Brazil rations water in 140 cities amid worst drought in decades

Published time: February 16, 2014 10:15
Edited time: February 18, 2014 13:45
Three-year-old coffee trees are irrigated in a farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim (Reuters / Paulo Whitaker)

Three-year-old coffee trees are irrigated in a farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim (Reuters / Paulo Whitaker)

Over 140 Brazilian cities have been pushed to ration water during the worst drought on record, according to a survey conducted by the country's leading newspaper. Some neighborhoods only receive water once every three days.

Water is being rationed to nearly 6 million people living in a total of 142 cities across 11 states in Brazil, the world's leading exporter of soybeans, coffee, orange juice, sugar and beef. Water supply companies told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that the country's reservoirs, rivers and streams are the driest they have been in 20 years. A record heat wave could raise energy prices and damage crops.

Some neighborhoods in the city of Itu in Sao Paulo state (which accounts for one-quarter of Brazil's population and one-third of its GDP), only receive water once every three days, for a total of 13 hours.

Brazilian coffee producer Marcio Diogo adjusts an irrigation system in his farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim (Reuters / Paulo Whitaker)

Brazil's water utility company Sabesp said on its website that the Cantareira water system (the largest of the six that provide water to nearly half of the 20 million people living in the metropolitan area of Sao Paulo) is at less than 19 percent of its capacity of 1 trillion liters. The company described the situation at Cantareira as "critical": the amount of rain registered in the month to January was the lowest in 84 years. Sabesp said the other five water supply systems in Sao Paulo's metropolitan area were normal for this time of year, however.

The PCJ Consorcio water association said the area would have to see 17 millimeters of rain a day for two months until Cantareira's water level recovers to 50 percent of its capacity.

Water markers indicating where water level used to be are seen at Jaguary dam, as the dam dries up over a long drought period in the state of Sao Paulo, in Braganca Paulista, 100km (62 miles) from Sao Paulo (Reuters / Nacho Doce)

Average reservoir levels in the southeast and central-west regions, which account for up to three-thirds of Brazil's hydroelectric power generation, fell to 41 percent in late January.

January was the hottest month on record in parts of the country, including in Sao Paulo. The heat, plus a severe drought, has raised concerns over growing water shortages and crop damage. According to Brazil's national meteorological institute INMET, Sao Paulo's average maximum daily temperature so far this year was 31.9 degrees Celsius (89.4 degrees Fahrenheit), a degree hotter than the previous January record and surpassing February 1984 as the city's hottest month ever.

According to the state meteorological agency in Ceara state, the northeast of the country is also experiencing its worst drought in at least 50 years. Hundreds of thousands of cattle have died from heat exhaustion, and farmers are getting desperate. "I have never seen a drought like this,” Ulisses de Sousa Ferraz, an 85-year-old farmer in Pernambuco state, told Reuters, adding that he has lost 50 cows. “Everything has dried up."

The shadow of a hand is seen on the cracked ground of Jaguary dam during a long drought period that hit the state of Sao Paulo in Braganca Paulista, 100 km from Sao Paulo (Reuters / Nacho Doce)

It's believed that yields from the 2014-15 coffee crop, which will be collected in the southeastern states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo starting in May, were also probably hurt by dry weather in January, according to the PROCAFE Foundation. A shortage of rain could also diminish yields on the current orange crop.

It's hoped that summer rains could finally return by March to refill reservoirs and prevent serious economic losses.