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Extreme drought

Extreme drought

Brazil’s southern region has been crippled by a lack of rain in the last year, an event that’s been attributed to the inversion of La Niña. But why has it reversed? And why now?

When the Jesuit priest Fernão Cardim arrived in northeast Brazil in 1583, the land he found was one of “intense drought and sterility”, where “water mills stopped grinding for a long time”, prompting a “great famine”. Continuing south along the coast to Rio de Janeiro, where rain still fell, the contrast couldn’t have been starker. What he encountered “appear[ed] to have been devised by the supreme painter and architect of the world, Our Lord God”. That was over 400 years ago. In 2021, the Brazil that Cardim described has been flipped upside down.

Over the past year, an inversion of the La Niña weather pattern has meant that more rain has fallen in the north of Brazil, on the Amazon basin and the northeast coast where Cardim landed, with less falling on the country’s southern region, which is now the centre of the country’s worst drought in almost a century. Brazil has been left reeling by its devastating effects, including:

  • Water shortages: reservoirs that serve about 7.5 million people in São Paulo city dropped to below ten per cent of their capacity. “Lately we’ve been without water every other day,” Nilza Maria Silva Duarte from São Paulo’s working class east zone told the Financial Times (£), “but it was usually at night. But on Thursday we had no water all day”.
  • Agricultural collapse: water shortages in reservoirs and rivers make it difficult for farmers to irrigate their dry land. Sugarcane crops have already been badly affected. Agricultural production will fall and commodity prices will rise globally because Brazil’s agricultural sector is huge.
  • Brazilian slowdown: agricultural production accounts for around 30 per cent of Brazil’s gross domestic product. If drought drags down the sector, it will slow total economic growth, which has already been battered by the Covid pandemic.
  • Power outages: hydroelectric power generation accounts for 65 per cent of Brazil’s electricity mix, so the drought has hit electricity production and forced the country to increase its reliance on more expensive thermal power generation. Electricity prices are up 40 per cent this year. 

So while it’s now in the south of Brazil that Cardim’s water mills have ground to a halt, the question is: why has the weather pattern reversed? Climate campaigners have pointed the finger at deforestation in the Amazon, saying the two are “directly connected”. As deforestation reached its highest level in more than a decade last year, the Amazon’s water recycling system, which distributes rainfall across all of South America, was disrupted. And, on top of that disruption, there’s the climate crisis.

“We can’t deny that climate change, namely global warming, plays a role,” Marcelo Seluchi, a meteorologist at the Brazilian government’s national disaster monitoring centre, told the New York Times ($). “It’s raining less and we’re using more water.”

Were Cardim to set foot in Brazil now, he’d likely be disappointed by the grim familiarity of the situation. But if he were to take into account the country’s leadership, it’s unlikely he’d find the scenario surprising: the last time President Bolsonaro pledged to tackle deforestation, he cut the environmental budget by almost a third the very next day.

Science and Tech

Taste the waste
What can we do with all our used plastic bottles? Convert them into a vanilla-flavouring chemical, you ask? Yes, say scientists at the University of Edinburgh. They have engineered a bacteria that can help turn plastic bottles into vanillin. The chemical is already widely used in food, cosmetics, and as a bulking agent in pharmaceuticals, cleaning products and herbicides. The discovery builds on enzymes that break plastic down into terephthalic acid, which the new bacteria works on. It’s a discovery that could potentially make recycling profitable, therefore more popular.


Adaptation failure
Britain’s land temperature has increased by around 1.2°C from pre-industrial levels, its sea levels have risen by 16cm since 1900, and severe heat waves have become more frequent. Can it get worse? Yes: hundreds of thousands of new homes have been built in the UK that aren’t resilient to the impact of heatwaves – and a further 1.5 million such homes are due to be built in the next five years. Many hospitals and care homes are unable to remain cool. The analysis comes from the Climate Change Committee, an independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 to advise the government. “These risks will not disappear as the world moves to net zero,” said Baroness Brown, who chairs the committee’s climate adaptation work, “many of them are already locked in.”


Activist investing
Academics examined the Boardroom Accountability Project, which, among its other targets, identified companies that made significant contributions to climate change and then pushed them to reform. The academics found that companies targeted by the campaign reduced the release of carcinogenic chemicals, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and improved air quality. According to the research, these companies were responding to the specific engagement of the campaign – and not broader social pressure for change. “Overall,” the researchers conclude, “engagements are an effective tool for long-term shareholders to address climate change risks.”


More drought
The extreme aridity in Brazil (above) can be framed within a global picture of drought. Last week, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction released a report that described drought as a coming global crisis. It isn’t just a southern hemisphere issue. It costs €9 billion a year in the EU, and $6 billion a year in the US. The report predicts that most of the world will be living with water stress in the near future, land degradation will worsen, and agricultural yields will drop, leading to food shortages. “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic,” said Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, “and there is no vaccine to cure it”. No vaccine, but good water and land management would help.

Thanks for reading.

Paul Caruana Galizia

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