Why are we losing surface water in Brazil?

Image: Magda Ehlers


The lack of rain cannot be blamed for the loss of surface water in Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon and in other biomes has clear effects on this situation.

“My love, look, today the sun did not appear, it is the end of the human adventure on Earth” (Banda Rádio Táxi, Eva)

It's August 2021 and the country is full of news about the water crisis, energy crisis, increased hunger and misery, 15 million unemployed workers, increased deforestation in all Brazilian biomes (Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga and Pamap) and increased burning in the Amazon and Pantanal Biomes.

But what do these questions have in common?

Basically, they are common for two reasons: a large part of this situation is related to the current development model and the still inadequate way of carrying out environmental and water management; with little investment in governance (=administrative structure) of states and municipalities, absence or little planning, little strengthening of social participation and without integration with other public policies, since actions originating from other areas (planning, works, etc.) can impact on the environment and waters as it already happens.

What is happening to Earth and Brazil?

According to a 2019 Report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in London, “negative human impacts on the environment go beyond climate change to encompass most other natural systems, driving a complex and dynamic process of environmental destabilization that has reached critical levels. This destabilization is occurring at speeds unprecedented in human history and as a result we have entered the age of environmental collapse.”

This report demonstrates that “Global natural systems are undergoing destabilization on an unprecedented scale, for example; the 20 warmest years since records began in 1850 were in the last 22 years, with the last four years being the warmest on record; the vertebrate population has dropped by an average of 60% since the 1970s and over 75% of the Earth's land is substantially degraded”.

And the IPCC report of August of this year, proves this situation, where the following data are presented:

It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land surface. Rapid and widespread changes have taken place. Of the currently observed warming of 1,09oC (2011-2020) compared to the pre-industrial period (1850-1900), 1,07oC probably derives from human actions such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Each of the last four decades has been warmer than all the decades since 1850. Between 2011-2020, temperature warming over continents averages 1,59oC, versus 0,88oC over the ocean.

Human influence probably contributed to the increased humidity in the atmosphere. Precipitation has probably increased since the 1950s, and more rapidly since the 1980s.

The concentrations of CO2 (carbon dioxide), CH4 (methane) and N2O (nitrous oxide), the three main greenhouse gases mixed in the atmosphere1, are the highest in 800 years, and current CO2 concentrations have not been seen since 2 million years ago at least.

Global temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period in the past two millennia. Temperatures since 2011 exceed those of the last long warm period, 6.500 years ago, and match those of the previous warm period, 125 years ago, when the Greenland ice sheet almost completely disappeared.

According to the report by MapBiomas Água released this August:

Brazil has been losing surface area covered with water since the 90s. The loss was 15,7%, falling from almost 20 million hectares to 16,6 million hectares in 2020.

The loss of 3,1 million hectares in 30 years is equivalent to one and a half times the water surface of the entire northeast region in 2020. All Biomes had a reduction in water surface.

Brazil is divided into 12 hydrographic regions, of these, 9 hydrographic regions lost water surface between 1990 and 2020, and a good part of these hydrographic regions are exactly where the largest population contingent of the country is located and it is important to say that even the Amazon Hydrographic Region decreased about 12% of its water mass.

54 of the 76 hydrographic sub-basins lost water surface in the last 3 decades and 23 states had a reduction in water surface between 1990 and 2020. In the states of Mato Grosso and Roraima the reduction reached 50% and Mato Grosso do Sul was the most with the greatest absolute (and relative) loss of water surface in a 36-year historical series, from 1.371.069 hectares of water surface in 1985 to 589.378 hectares in 2020.

But why are we losing surface water in Brazil?

One of the aspects that explain the loss of water surface is the inadequate management and use of land in urban and rural areas, the current model of agricultural production, the form and concentration of occupation in urban areas and deforestation.

The absence of rain cannot be blamed for the loss of surface water in Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon and in other biomes has clear effects on this situation.

Regarding deforestation, maps and updated data from MapBiomas show that Brazil lost 87,2 million hectares of native vegetation areas between 1985 and 2019. This is equivalent to 10,25% of the national territory.

Deforestations have increased since 2018 in all biomes: Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest and Pampa.

The Biomes map released a recent report demonstrating that we lost 24 trees per second in 2020.

It is good to remember that the Amazon Forest is responsible for the rains that arrive in the Midwest, Southeast and South regions, through the flying rivers.

Analysis by the Remote Sensing Center team at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) show that the annual amount of rain fell by half over the last 20 years in regions of Rondônia, northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará, where agriculture occupied up to 60% of previously forested areas, with an estimated annual loss of BRL 5,7 billion.

Regarding the form of occupation in the urban area, it is good to remember that the form is standard in Brazil, cities like Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, others could be mentioned, had their urban rivers channeled in about 80% and practically 90% of the urban area of these cities are paved. As a result, rainwater in urban centers does not infiltrate, causing frequent floods.

The increase in deforestation in all biomes in Brazil causes a decrease in rainfall and at the same time, even when it rains, due to the absence of vegetation cover, rainwater does not infiltrate the soil. This prevents regularity in the amount of water during the dry period.

What does it mean to lose water surface? It means that we are losing the amount of water stored in the rivers that are capable of guaranteeing the multiple uses of water, especially human supply.

Therefore, we are putting at risk: the water supply for the population, business and development.

Brazil still presents negative data regarding the human right to access clean and safe water and sanitation:

According to official data, we have 35 (thirty-five) million Brazilians (as) without access to clean and safe water and 95 (ninety-five) million Brazilians (as) without access to sanitation and it is always important to remember that a good part of hospital beds in Brazil are occupied by people with diseases that originate from poor water quality and lack of sanitation.

Recent studies prove that residents of places without basic sanitation earn lower wages than the population with access to water, sewage collection and treatment, so they are also more vulnerable to common diseases in areas where this infrastructure does not exist or is precarious – and the effect of this is an increase in public health expenditures, which in reality are expenditures on diseases, not really on health.

In 2017, throughout Brazil, 872 cities had federal recognition of an emergency situation caused by a long period of drought. The most affected region was the Northeast and the state of Paraíba, which concentrated the largest number of municipalities, with 198 that communicated the problem to the National Secretariat for Protection and Civil Defense (Sedec).

What about the issue of social inequality?

Social inequality is as much related to the current development model as it is to the impacts on the environment, and in this case it is the richest people who have the greatest impact on the environment.

The wealth of adult humanity (about 4,7 billion people) is 240,8 trillion dollars (2013). More than two-thirds (68,7%) of adults located at the bottom of the wealth pyramid own 3% (7,3 trillion dollars) of global wealth, with assets of no more than 10 dollars.

At the top of the pyramid, only 0,7% of adults own 41% of the world's wealth (98,7% trillion dollars). Together, the two upper strata of the pyramid – 393 million individuals or 8,4% of the adult population – hold 83,3% of the world's wealth.

To satisfy the greed of 393 million individuals – the 8,4% of the world's adult population holding 83,3% of the world's wealth – the planet's economy moves, a machine that produces environmental crises, starting with climate change: “The richest 500 million people in the world produce half of CO2 emissions, while the poorest 3 billion emit only 7%”.

Therefore, we need to overcome social inequality so that this does not mean producing more emissions and in this case it demonstrates even more strongly the need for a new development model, which combines the end of social inequality with the end of CO2 emissions.

But do we have a way out in the face of these facts and data presented?? What's the way out? Or as the band Rádio Táxi said in the 80s, with the song “Eva”: Do we have to abandon the human adventure on Earth?

The first answer is that we must not abandon the human adventure on Earth. There are many movements taking place demonstrating that we are capable and there are opportunities for us to find ways out of crises.

One of them, and perhaps the main one, is the urgent need to discuss and build a new development model, as a deeply unequal country that does not take care of its waters and the environment will not be sustainable.

Therefore, this new model needs to integrate the social, environmental and economic aspects, making it clear that we human beings are part of nature and not that we are apart from nature.

The environmental, water and economic crises that we have been through and are going through demonstrate the urgent need for this new model of development, where the environmental and social issues are the flagship of development and saying that the economy must work in a way.

Development to be complete has to be based on the integration of social and environmental aspects. The sectors that are in favor of a new development model need to incorporate the environmental issue in the discussion on development, after all, it is the most economically vulnerable that suffer most from the lack of water and sanitation.

However, while we are discussing and building a new development model, it is urgent and necessary that in the short term, the population covers and strengthens environmental and water management, otherwise we will have more and more conflicts over water use and increase the risks to guarantee water security.

And for that, it is necessary to demand from the federal, state and municipal governments the expansion and maintenance of environmental governance and demand from Congress so that it maintains the Brazilian environmental legislation and does not modify it based only on economic and greedy bias.

It is essential to listen to science for decision-making on any change in legislation and for decision-making in the elaboration of public policies.

Finally, it is important to state that it is possible to resolve both social and environmental challenges, but if we see both struggles as just one.

*Angelo Jose Rodrigues Lima He holds a PhD in Geography in Environmental Analysis and Territorial Dynamics from Unicamp..


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