Emerging Water Issues In Brazil

Maurício Andrés Ribeiro

Brazil has historically been blessed with an abundant supply of water. Droughts and water scarcity were typically confined only to the northeastern parts of the country. Since 2012, however, the water crisis has hit vast regions in the southeast and center-west of the country. Consequently, droughts and floods have reached a vocal and informed part of the Brazilian population and their concerns have occupied a growing space in the press.

The São Paulo State has been impacted by a daunting water crisis with 2.1 million people already facing rationing. In cities with local water supply systems, water cuts vary from 4 hours to 2 days a week.

The water crisis had had an uneven regional impact in Brazil: in the northeast, many rivers are in a critical condition because of scanty rainfall and high evapotranspiration; in the southeast, there is a high demand for water as well as severe pollution; the insecurity of supply afflicts the metropolitan areas due to high demand; in the south of the country there is water stress due to the heavy demand for irrigation of rice; and in the Federal District, there is a combination of lack of rain and high demand. To make matters even more complicated, it is estimated that more than 16,500 kilometers of federal rivers (those that cross more than one state, as well as those which flow across borders between Brazilian states and neighboring countries) are facing rising conflicts in water usage.

Reasons For The Current Water Crisis In Brazil

The water crisis is a result of a combination of local, regional and global causes that have led to changes in the water cycle, rainfall and river flows. The most prominent of the local causes that have affected the availability of water is the intense pumping of groundwater for various purposes, and especially for irrigation. This has led to the lowering of the water table in aquifers as well as reduction in the volume of surface water in rivers, making them intermittent or ephemeral. Another reason is deforestation and the replacement of natural vegetation by extensive commercial tree plantations or by artificial grass pastures for livestock. This has impacted the water cycle and also reduced the natural storage of water in the soil, which is important to feed the rivers. Other causes include illegal land occupation, uncontrolled urbanization, occupation and development of aquifer recharge areas, and dumping of waste and sewage in rivers. Along with this the waste and loss of water in the use and in the systems of supply has substantially reduced the amount of water that is available.

Critical water basins in Brazil in terms of quality and quantity.
Hydrographic regions
Blue–Satisfactory Orange–Qualitative Yellow-Quantitative Red-Quali-quantitative
1. Qualitatively critical – Rivers in the northeast. Low water availabitily to match the demand
2. Quantitatively critical – Rivers in the south. High demand for irrigation ( rice)
Red circle – Quali-quantitatively critical – Rivers in metropolitan regions. High demand and heavy load of domestic sewage.

There are global causes which have also influenced the Brazilian water crisis. For example, El Nino, the heating of Pacific Ocean, has had adverse consequences, such as greater droughts in the northeast and floods in southern Brazil. Climate change has local effects, too: long standing data that historically guided decision making on investments in water infrastructure have become unreliable, and the average historical rainfall no longer occurs. A new normal which is , in fact, quite abnormal, now arbitrates all efforts at future planning.

Flying Rivers are destroyed by deforestation
1. Moisture rises from the oceans due to equatorial warmth
2. Clouds enter the continent and exchange moisture with the forests
3. Reaching the Andes, rains give rise to rivers in the Amazon basin
4. The rest of the moisture irrigates the south and the southeast


Then there are causes which work on a continental scale in South America, well explained by Antonio Donato Nobre, the scientist chiefly credited with formulating the connection between deforestation in the Amazonian region and droughts in the southeast. The Amazon rainforest works like a water pump, with evapotranspiration and winds blowing from the Atlantic to the west. They form the so-called flying rivers, that transport humidity by the winds. Their passage to the east, however, is blocked by the Andes, and consequently they turn towards the south and ultimately descend as rain in central Brazil and the southeast. Deforestation in the Amazon for livestock and extensive monoculture of soybeans has weakened the flying rivers that bring moisture to the vast areas of the central west and southeast of Brazil and has reduced substantially the volume of rainfall, too.





Gradually, this evolving knowledge about the causes of the water crisis in Brazil has flowed beyond the scientific circles to administrators, the managers of water and sanitation departments and to the larger society. Ironically, the water crisis in the country has ended up with a positive by-product: water has become a crucial subject meriting widespread public attention as well as scientific and socio-economic studies. This has contributed to social learning, overcoming the deficit of consciousness and knowledge – what could be termed as hydro-alienation and hydro-illiteracy. At the same time, this has also made quite clear the limits of governmental and academic knowledge. New actors have become protagonists in the larger theme of water management, as have several civil society organizations, which have strengthened their water agendas. Several NGOs have also joined the discussion as well as the larger endeavor of activism. Alliance for Water is one such organization, which has proposed a set of actions to deal with the water crisis, several of them aimed at using economic instruments such as incentives, fines and contingency rates to discourage consumption. Similarly, various other movements and NGOs have been working on actions to safeguard the integral water cycle. Dealing with the water crisis requires a holistic, integrative vision, and at the same time an operational capacity for action that responds to each local reality.

Sharing Waters Peacefully

When water is scarce, it becomes a source of contention and rivalry. If there are no civilized ways to solve them, these conflicts end up being solved by violence or by the imposition of the state’s power. Sharing water harmoniously and peacefully is an art as well as a science. In Brazil, there are successful experiences of sharing water that have these characteristics and deserve to be better known and disseminated. There are many examples of good practices based on shared quality information among the various water users of a river or a reservoir.

In the Brazilian semi-arid region, local water commissions have been in operation for some time, focusing on a water system that may be a river basin, a micro basin, a sub-basin, or even a stretch of river. Firstly, these water comissions gather all the information on the basin and its functional reality. They agree to each other’s allocation of water, and self-scrutinize each other, managing scarcity and resolving conflicts and disputes non-violently. This constitutes an evolution from methods that use external enforcement or the use of force to resolve disputes over water. When there is no local body established by the state, a group of people representing all sectors and knowledgeable about the subject is elected. These commissions share information about rainfall and river flows in the area; from this knowledge base they decide how to allocate the available water in a negotiated manner. They apportion water in such a way that it is available in the future, and apply science and socio-economic parameters to solve practical problems. A monitoring committee is set up to regulate the amount of water available to everyone and to conduct self-scrutiny so as to prevent a user from withdrawing more water than he or she is entitled to as per the agreement with others.

In Brazil, there are more than 100 operating commissions, formalized in a flexible way, with effective social participation. They are functional, practical, economical and effective. In addition to water allocation, they define the rules for regulating uses, assist in monitoring, and even undertake actions such as repairing valves that release water into reservoirs. For those who are interested in learning more about this effective method of preventing disputes, there’s a lot of information available on the ANA website. There, the link to water allocation explains the terms of allocation and follow-up bulletins, as well as guidelines on the method and how to apply them. In the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, a contentious conflict situation arose related to the reservoir Armando Ribeiro Gonçalves, the main water supply of the state. It was, however, resolved through negotiated water allocation and since April, 2017 the reservoir has been working under operational rules and water use restrictions. In another case, at a large farm that used a great amount of water in Correntina, Bahia State, the absence of negotiated allocation of water resulted in violent conflicts, leading to the destruction of critical equipment. A 3-minute video on YouTube also has information about negotiated water allocation.

In the critical context of climate change and water crisis in which conflicts over water use tend to multiply, these experiences of harmonious sharing of water are good examples that deserve recognition and eventual replication.

Fatehpur Sikri: A Climate Change and Water Crisis Warning To Brasilia

As we evaluate the current water crisis in the country, there is a cautionary tale which links a Brazilian city with a medieval Indian town. Brasilia, the modern capital of Brazil, was planned in the 1950s and inaugurated in 1960. The city, blessed with a splendid sky and beautiful sunsets, was included in the architectural Heritage of Humanity protected by UNESCO. Brasilia is a good place to live, with a pleasant climate, although dry for a few months of the year, with large green spaces and a vehicle circulation system based on cars. Since its inception, the city has attracted migratory currents from other regions of the country, becoming a metropolis with three million inhabitants. In 2017, however, and for the first time in its history, Brasilia faces the grim reality of water rationing. The most important reason behind this water crisis is deforestation in the Amazon, which reduces the strength of the flying rivers (the movement of large quantity of water vapor due to evapotranspiration) that come from that region, reducing the rainfall in the central plateau of Brazil.

Fatehpur Sikri

A parallel can be drawn between Brasilia and Fatehpur Sikri in India. An imposing complex of public buildings, palaces, monuments and temples was planned and built at both places in a short period of time to house the capital and seat of government. Unfortunately, however, Fatehpur Sikri, which was conceived and erected by the Mughal Emperor Akbar between 1571 and 1585 to be the center of his grand empire, functioned as a capital only for 10 years. It was abandoned due to the lack of water supply owing to a severe drought that lasted for many years in that part of the country. Now, it is only a beautiful place of tourist visitation and archaeological research.




Fatehpur Sikri’s fate in the sixteenth century brings a warning for the twenty-first century in Brasilia. Climate change, which is already causing water shortages around the world can collapse cities, regions or countries. Water scarcity imposes critical limits on population and human activities. Brasillia can learn a historical lesson from Fatehpur Sikri.








Maurício Andrés Ribeiro, an architect by training and profession , is a prominent Brazilian environmental administrator. He was the Director of the National Council for the Environment, Ministry of Environment, Brasilia (2001-2002), and has served as an adviser at the National Water Agency since 2003.


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