Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s Northeast has long suffered from periodic droughts, particularly in the semi-arid region known as the “sertão”. That has prompted tens of thousands of people there to pack up and migrate south to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where jobs and water were in abundance.
Or, at least there was water until the drought of 2014/15 which struck Brazil’s Southeast. Just as in the sertão, the rainy season (December, January, February) has been inordinately dry. Reservoirs have shrunk to alarming levels, which the papers headline every day.
“Volume morto” has become a well-known phrase; literally “dead water”, it means the water at the bottom of a reservoir, below the level of the gates that release water for consumption. In fact, São Paulo has now claimed to have found third and fourth levels of “dead water”. That’s a bit like saying, they’ve hit rock bottom and are still digging.
There are potential problems with “dead water” — for instance no one knows if it’s really safe, since it’s been sitting down at the bottom collecting God knows what for decades. Moreover, in order to use this water, it has to be pumped upwards – that requires using more energy which requires … more water.
According to the politicians running these states, the problem is not serious. There’s no need for rationing as there was back in 2001, they say, because, well, because… it’s going to rain a lot in February and March! Phew! What a relief! Everyone can now breathe easily and get on with the important business of wondering whose mask to wear during Carnival.
All is not bad news, however. During the last few days, the Governors of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have begun to show an interest in desalinization of sea water. Desalinization, although it’s very expensive, might make sense for Rio, because the largest population centers are at sea level. For São Paulo, however, any sea water would have to be pumped 800 meters uphill to reach the twenty million consumers in Greater São Paulo.
During Lula’s first term, the government began a megaproject to divert water from the São Francisco River into the sertão, so that Nordestinos would not have to migrate southwards any more. The principal source of the São Francisco is in Minas Gerais, which is also drought-stricken. Expect political battles, because landlocked Minas Gerais will want to keep most of the São Francisco water for itself.
Do not expect rationing — that would be rational. After heavy rains for a few days, Rio and São Paulo governors praise rainmaking Saint Peter and revert to being ostriches, plunging their heads once again into the sand. That’s easier to do now, there’s lots of sand in the newly dry riverbeds and reservoirs.
There’s a traditional Carnival song whose refrain is: “De dia falta água, de noite falta luz!” (“No water by day, no power by night!”) You’ll hear that a lot this Carnival.
You’ll probably hear it again in June, after rationing has, inevitably, begun.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON, fetched up on Carioca shores some 37+ years ago and still loves them; his favorite spectator sport is politics, viewed from a WASP-like perspective.