Biggest water crisis in history: nature collects the bill

Text: Flávia Correia
Edition: Rafael Rigues

We are facing major global challenges of late. the pandemic of Covid-19, without a doubt, is one of them. The world has been ravaged by the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which started in China, in 2019, and quickly spread to almost the entire planet, where it continues to wreak havoc to this day. In Brazil alone, there are about 525 fatal victims of the disease, in a cumulative total of more than 18,5 million cases. To complete the tragic picture, we are simultaneously going through the biggest water crisis in history.

Like the new coronavirus, the water problem occurs across the planet. But, also like the deadly infectious agent, the water crisis takes on more evident contours in poor and developing countries, although it also affects the great world powers, in some way. And the effects of this crisis are, and tend to continue to be, increasingly lethal on millions of people, especially the most vulnerable.

Since industrialization, emissions of gases that are harmful to the atmosphere have been growing at an accelerated pace. In the photo, smoke from an ethanol factory in Brazil. From industrialization onwards, emissions of gases harmful to the atmosphere were
growing at a fast pace. In the photo, smoke from an ethanol factory in Brazil.
Credit: Mauricio Graiki - Shutterstock

With the Industrial Revolution, which took place in the world from the mid-1760s, and, in Brazil, at the end of the XNUMXth century and beginning of the XNUMXth century, the human being's lifestyle began to change at a very fast pace. As a result, emissions of harmful gases into the atmosphere were growing wildly, as well as other changes in the environment caused by man.

Experts warn that if humanity does not take actions effectively capable of containing this advance, it will be impossible to have a sustainable survival in the coming decades.

Climate change and human actions are components of the water crisis

According to the researcher at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), Giovanni Dolif Neto, PhD in Meteorology from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the problem can be divided into two questions. One natural, part of the cycle of nature, and the other, human.

Giovanni Dolif Neto, PhD in Meteorology from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), is a researcher at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN). Giovanni Dolif Neto, PhD in Meteorology from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE),
He is a researcher at the National Center for Monitoring and Alerting of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN).
Credit: Personal File

"In the natural component, the climate of our planet, throughout history, has evolved, changed many times. It was much warmer than it is today and it was much colder. There have already been several cycles of glaciations, when most of the water it was frozen and then melted again. And these different moments of the planet's climate also provide a different distribution of rainfall", declared Dolif in an interview with Olhar Digital.

The planet's history is much longer than the history of man. Man began to settle around ten thousand years ago, with the agricultural revolution. Until then, he was a nomad, going in search of regions where he would have access to water and food. "From the moment he started to settle down, he counted on the climate where he settled down to maintain itself over time," explains the meteorologist. “It happens that, in these ten thousand years, we have had variations. Ten thousand years ago, it was a colder period, for example. About two thousand years ago, we also had changes. Fifteen hundred years ago, we had a warmer period. We also have a colder period again, about one to two centuries ago. So, this oscillation of the planet is happening”.

At a certain point, man began to move from the countryside to the cities, in a process called urbanization. Here in Brazil, this movement intensified along with industrial development and the crisis in the agricultural sector, even in the first half of the 1950th century. As of 85, more than half of the population migrated to cities, where around XNUMX% of Brazilians currently live.

According to Dolif, as cities were established with a very large population density, "the need for water was increasing in these regions". With the lifestyle that man has assumed in the last more than a hundred years, especially in the last few decades, he actively acted on nature. “It started to emit a lot of greenhouse gases, modified the environment, deforested, removed a lot of vegetation from areas where it was important, especially in springs, on the banks of rivers. And with that, the water cycle was disturbed. And so, too, the distribution of rains”, explains the researcher.

The sum of the natural cycle of the climate with the human actions resulting from urbanization had inevitable results on the environment: climate change, depletion of ozone layer, ocean acidification and declining availability of fresh water are some of these consequences.

Planetary limits for the preservation of the Earth: we have already surpassed four out of nine

In 2009, a group of scientists led by the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) identified nine “planetary limits” on Earth. They are secure environmental frontiers within which humanity can develop without irreversible impacts on the environment.

This month, Netflix launched the documentary “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet”, which deals precisely with the limits that have already been crossed on our planet and those that are leading us to a tipping point, or that is, a practically irreversible position, which can compromise not only the stability of the Earth, but the future of humanity.

Documentary "Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet", from Netflix, deals with the planetary limits that have already been crossed on Earth. Documentary "Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet"
from Netflix, addresses planetary boundaries that have already been crossed on Earth.
Credit: Disclosure/Netflix

In the documentary, renowned Swedish scientist Johan Rockström reports that out of a total of nine, four planetary limits have already been exceeded: climate change, forest reduction, loss of biodiversity and alteration of nutrients in waterways.

The work features testimonies from some of the world's most respected scientists in their fields. Brazilian Carlos Nobre is among them, talking about the deforestation of the Amazon and the risk of the world's largest rainforest turning into a great savanna.

Nobre, who is coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change (INCT-​MC) and Senior Fellow in Brazil at the World Resources Institute (WRI), says that South America is the continent with greater risk of species extinction attributable to these changes. In this region of the planet, 25% of local species would disappear with a 4°C increase in global temperature.

Scientist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change (INCT-​MC). Scientist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change (INCT-​MC).
Credit: Tore Marklund / DISCLOSURE. National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA).

Two of the barriers that have already been overcome, the loss of biodiversity and climate change, are directly related to the deforestation of tropical forests, places that harbor the greatest terrestrial and river biodiversity on the planet. The current rate of deforestation in these forests is responsible for approximately 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carlos Nobre highlights the urgency of taking action to combat climate change. "We need to sharply reduce emissions and dramatically increase CO2 removals."

Giovanni Dolif illustrates the breaking of these planetary boundaries making an analogy with the act of breaking a wooden barbeque toothpick. “If you push on the ends of the toothpick, it will bend. But, there comes a point where it can no longer bend, and then it breaks. Even if you let go, it doesn't go back to where it was before. While it's bending, if you let go, it comes back. But after a certain point he doesn't come back. So, the danger is for us to reach this point on our planet. We are distorting so much, modifying the environment so much, that depending on whether we recompose it, it comes back, but it may reach a point where it doesn't come back again”, he warns.

Amazon is close to the irreversible point

Dolif says that, in the Amazon, this is very close to happening. “Studies show that we may be very close to reaching this point of no return. This does not necessarily happen in a general way, it happens little by little, in some areas. In the south of the Amazon, which has already been more devastated, we observe that temperatures have been higher, the rainy season has been shorter, so, there, there is already a change in the climate”.

Nobre also addresses the issue. In a work done in partnership with the North American biologist and environmentalist Thomas Lovejoy, specialized in conservation, ecology and tropical biology, the climatologist indicates that the Amazon is rapidly heading towards breaking its limits.

This rupture will cause parts of the forest to become degraded areas, turning into vast dirty fields. This would happen because the balance of the Amazon rainforest is the result of a delicate but massive water transport current.

This current is born in the Atlantic Ocean and reaches the Andes, where it turns towards the south. The current is not linear, but composed of successive cycles of rain and forest evapotranspiration.

Amazon is very close to the point of no return, that is: the situation may be irreversible. Amazon is very close to the point of no return, that is: the situation may be irreversible.
Credit: luoman - iStockphoto.

Removing the trees therefore weakens this current. A smaller amount of water circulating in the region, in turn, is fatal for the size of the forest. Smaller and less thirsty tree species take the place of the great tangle of trees and symbiotic species.

Nobre and Lovejoy estimate that the breaking point should happen when the forest loses between 20% and 25% of its original cover. And, according to INPE, 17% of the biome has already been lost. But for Nobre, the loss is closer to 20%, as he considers in the calculation the severely degraded areas and those where the forest is recovering (although without the previous richness).

Throughout history, man has also wreaked havoc in other regions of the country. “In the Southeast region, for example, we deforested almost the entire Atlantic Forest. Well over 90% has been deforested. This has an influence on the amount of steam that goes into the atmosphere”, explains Giovanni Dolif. “Every time there is a cold front or a summer rain, you have less vapor in the atmosphere. These are effects that are gradual - the atmosphere does not respond in a linear way. It changes until we reach a point of no return”, he warns.

Bills in progress tend to aggravate the scenario

Scientists and environmentalists warn that the combined approval of certain bills (PL) can push the Amazon forest beyond its breaking point.

Agência Lupa and prepared a material explaining four proposals that are being discussed in Congress and why they can favor the advance of deforestation in the Amazon.

Among these proposals are the 3.729 PL / 2004, which makes environmental licensing and the PL No. 2.633/2020, known as PL da grilagem, which can facilitate the illegal occupation of large tracts of public land.

If approved, these two PLs could mean a death sentence for an important part of the forest south of the Amazon River.

In its current version, the licensing bill dispenses, for example, the environmental license for the expansion and improvement of roads, a historically proven recipe for increased deforestation. Many of the existing and planned roads in the Amazon are surrounded by public land.

As a result, once the roads are built or improved, the land grabbing PL comes into action, which allows for self-declared regularization of up to 2.500 hectares. This gives a clear signal for the occupation of these public lands.

A quick look at the dynamics of occupation of areas near new roads indicates that annually 2 square km of forest is deforested for each kilometer of expanded and/or paved road.

Two other bills that pose a threat to the preservation of Brazilian biomes are the PL No. 191/2020, which frees up economic activities such as mining within indigenous lands (TIs), and the PL No. 490/2007, considered one of the most serious threats to indigenous peoples.

The project that intends to free up mining in indigenous lands, signed by President Jair Bolsonaro, threatens at least 863 km² in the Amazon and could cause an annual loss of US$ 5 billion, according to a study by Brazilian and Australian researchers published in the scientific journal One Earth.

The PL proposes to regulate mining, mining, electricity generation, exploration and production of oil, natural gas and other hydrocarbons in these areas, in addition to the planting of transgenics. The proposal, which was drafted in 2019 by the Ministries of Justice and Public Security and Mines and Energy, without the participation of indigenous communities, is heavily criticized by civil society organizations, researchers and indigenous leaders, for representing a threat to traditional peoples.

Impacts of unsustainable agriculture

In Brazil, agricultural activities and deforestation are the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions. According to Nobre, 70% of Brazilian emissions come from there, while 80% of emissions in China come from the burning of fossil fuels, which is also the most responsible in the rest of the world. However, emissions from the global agricultural sector are also growing, making it difficult to reduce.

When forests or other natural systems, such as the cerrado and savannas, are opened to agriculture, the carbon stored in trees, soils and vegetation is released into the atmosphere.

If the world wants to prevent the global average temperature from increasing by 2°C compared to the pre-industrial era, studies suggest that by 2030, gas emissions will need to drop to one-fifth – from more than 5 billion tons of CO2 today to 1 billion in 2030.

It is possible to reduce emissions from agriculture through sustainable ways of food production, going through a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to methods that reduce impacts. This includes the use of no-till farming to preserve soil carbon and limiting the use of chemical fertilizers.

Changes in rain cycles

Dolif explains that agriculture and livestock, as well as deforestation, also act to disrupt the water cycles, when carried out in an ungoverned and unsustainable manner. “Natural biomes interact with the atmosphere, they actively participate in water cycles. So when you modify this vegetation, you are altering these cycles. You will change the regions where the rain occurs, and the volume of rain that will fall in certain areas”.

According to the expert, with the global rise in temperatures, the planet is more compatible with a greater frequency and intensity of extremes in the climate: both in excess and in the scarcity of rain.

“We have observed, especially in the last decade, a sequence of events that are very close, of very large amplitude”, says Dolif, reporting that, in Brazil, two extreme phenomena are happening at the same time. “The last rainy season started late. It always starts around October, and we didn't actually have more significant rains until December. It should have ended in March of this year, but it ended early, and in March it hardly rained. We had a very scarce rainy season in most of the country, from 2020 to 2021. At the same time that we observe there in the Amazon, mainly in the central and northern parts, a historic flood. The Rio Negro, in Manaus, reached a historically high level, well above the average, breaking records. So, we have two extremes in the same country, one with excessive rainfall and flooding, while most suffer from a lack of rain”.

Dolif explains that this scarcity of the last rainy season adds to previous years, when we also had below average rainfall. “Since the 2014-2015 crisis, reservoirs have failed to recover. We came, year after year, expecting a heavier rainy season, to replenish the reservoirs, but that didn't happen. And then, in this last rainy season, it was a very small volume, which culminated in this historic crisis”.

Cantareira System operating in the technical reserve, during the 2014-2015 water crisis. Cantareira System operating in the technical reserve, during the 2014-2015 water crisis.
Credit: Disclosure/Sabesp.

According to the meteorologist, in recent history, with a demand for water and energy such as we have today, Brazil had not faced such a low reservoir situation. "The combination of lack of rain, low level of reservoirs and the demand for water and energy makes us have an unprecedented situation."

A very clear point is that water is poorly distributed in our country. The regions richest in water are those with the lowest population concentration.

While the city of São Paulo, which has the largest number of inhabitants in Brazil, is supplied by the Cantareira reservoir, which currently has only 38,9% of its capacity (the lowest volume since 2017), the Amazon River Basin , in turn, is the region that concentrates the most water in Brazil.

Water crisis requires immediate and long-term action

Dolif cites some measures that can help to contain the problem, and they should be taken in the short, medium and long term. “In the short term, what we need to do is have a more rational consumption, be it water or electricity. So, educational campaigns are needed to guide people to use energy and water smarter and more efficiently. And, considering the longer term, we need to rethink the way we generate energy”.

He indicates the use of renewable energy sources, which do not depend only on water, “which is a renewable source, but fluctuates”. “We are seeing that it may come in insufficient quantities to provide energy. So, we have to invest in other sources. For example, wind sources, using the wind, or solar sources, using the Sun. These sources have a smaller variation. We can better plan these energy sources”, he says.

Wind and solar energy are examples of renewable sources, which can be better planned, according to meteorologist Giovanni Dolif. Wind and solar energy are examples of renewable sources, which can be better planned, according to meteorologist Giovanni Dolif.
Credit: Diyana Dimitrova - Shutterstock.

The specialist says that Brazil has already invested, mainly, in wind power. “The northeast region already makes up a good part of the energy matrix, but we still need to advance in this area. And solar even more, which still represents a very small percentage of Brazil's energy matrix”.

With low reservoirs to produce energy, the government ends up needing to resort to the use of thermoelectric plants, which, according to Dolif, produce energy that, in addition to being dirty, because they pollute and emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is also more expensive. “In our electricity bill, we are already paying more”.

And it cannot be denied that everyone is responsible. “If we have a more conscious, smarter consumption, we will help to minimize this crisis, and, therefore, for this cost of electricity to decrease”, advises Dolif.

In addition to conscious consumption, which is an individual attitude, collective attitudes must be considered. The researcher gives a simple example: “On the roofs of houses and buildings, we can have vegetation and collect rainwater. The water used in condominiums and houses can come from rainwater harvesting, which has two benefits: in addition to making better use of rainwater and using less water from springs, it also minimizes the impact of heavier rains, which end up causing many problems in cities, such as flooding and flooding”.

What we see today is a lot of water on top of an impermeable surface, which runs and drains quickly into the mouths of lobes and streams, which do not give out all this volume. "So, if this rainwater is captured in homes and condominiums, it will not flow so quickly into the streets and storm sewers, and, with that, we mitigate these floods during the summer that cause many problems in cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro”, explains Dolif, stating that, with the same measure, it is possible to act on two different fronts: minimizing the impacts of heavy rains and also reducing the effect of the lack of rain and the low level of reservoirs.

With regard to the poorest communities, Dolif believes that it is important to have public policies for cheaper financing of measures such as this one, for capturing rainwater, and also for the use of solar energy, for example, for heating water. “The electric shower is a great villain in electricity consumption. Now, we are in a colder period, so this consumption in electric showers increases a lot. Low-cost solar water heating financing programs help.”

Although some of these initiatives have already been taken in certain locations, they are still too small a scale to really make a difference. “Ideally, we would have an expansion of these programs so that the use of punctual solar energy in homes could mitigate the consumption demand of the network and could save a little of the large reservoirs that supply energy to the country”, says Dolif.

Quenching the population's thirst is also a challenge

Water is a key resource for energy consumption and basic sanitation. According to the documentary Brave Blue World (2020), also available on Netflix, data from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation claim that 1.200 children under the age of five die each day from poor sanitation.

"Millions of babies and children die every year from lack of access to water, sanitation, adequate nutrition or basic health services," says Princess Nono Simelela, Director General for Family, Women and Children's Health at the World Health Organization (WHO).

In eastern and southern Africa, more than 58% of children do not have enough water to live on. In eastern and southern Africa, more than 58% of children do not have enough water to live on.
Credit: UNDP/Karin Schermbrucker/Slingshot - via: Unicef.

Dolif explains that, unlike what happened in the initial period of urbanization, when cities grew around and because of rivers, “many cities turned their backs on rivers”.

“In the past, people faced the river. I know examples of small towns that were born facing the river, but that currently have their backs turned. Many people in cities do not even remember which side the river is on. So, we turned our back on the rivers”, laments the researcher.

And this “turning our backs” was not only literally, but also in the sense of underestimating the importance of river waters: we abandoned our rivers. “They have become just a means of disposing of what is not good for us: sewage and garbage”.

Dolif says it is paramount that there is a rescue. “And that starts with educational campaigns and public policies to clean and revitalize, and to draw people's attention to these areas on the banks of the rivers. Also bring back the riparian forest, that vegetation that helps to keep the water in the river, not only the existence of water, but to keep it clean”.

The researcher believes that we must make these environments healthier, more inviting and valued. “With this, we would already make a big difference in the availability of water for the population”.

Science can only be refuted by Science, not opinion

Nowadays, environmentalists all over the world have faced a lot of resistance from a portion of the population. Here in Brazil, this current seems to gain more and more followers. People who insist on not wanting to see or deny that this and other situations are actually happening: they are called “deniers”.

For Dolif, who consolidated all his knowledge in the area based on a lot of study (from his bachelor's degree, through his master's, to his doctorate, in addition to all his experience as a scientific researcher in serious and respected institutions), the divergence of ideas is healthy and always welcome. As long as they are based on scientifically proven (or at least verifiable) facts. “Throughout history, great thinkers were often later corrected later by other researchers. So, throughout history, we see that corrections and adjustments in knowledge take place. But, this is healthy for Science as long as it is based on facts, on empirical, scientific, objective and clear procedures, which can be reproduced by other researchers”.

He explains that every scientific methodology needs to be reproducible by other people in order for it to have validity, credibility. “The problem is that, nowadays, we see many denialist ideas, but without them bringing a robust methodology to show this contrary idea, to argue and defend a hypothesis. This ends up generating only noise, confusion, misinformation and hinders the process”, he says.

In the last decade, few really serious studies have presented ideas with scientific methodologies contrary to the issue of climate change and planet warming, according to Doliph. "But some ideologies still insist on bringing negationist ideas, without a scientific basis."

Even so, it is such a tiny portion of the world's population that, for the scientific community, it doesn't really make a difference. “Currently, the vast majority of researchers and scientists in the world agree with the idea that our planet is warming and that this warming is compatible with the increase in extremes of the climate”, guarantees the meteorologist.

For him, these are different interests. "There are large economic interests and a lot of money involved, so it is natural that those who benefit financially from this destruction of the environment want to defend the opposite idea, denial, saying that this destruction has no impact on our climate."

Economic interests cannot overlap the life of our planet

The denial current has a very close relationship, perhaps of cause and effect, with political and economic aspects. An attempt is made to discredit what may represent a threat to particular, power and financial interests.

It is clear that disregard for the environment will reflect in the future of the next generations, as the unbridled attitudes of decades ago have now reflected.

When we are concerned with economic development at the expense of environmental issues, we are neglecting a problem that belongs to everyone. It is necessary and urgent to have a balance between the importance of economic resources and the use of natural resources, because it is already more than proven that, although gigantic, they are limited.

This is sustainable development. When environmental and economic issues go hand in hand, being aware that one depends on the other.

Sustainable development balances economic and environmental issues, and is key to humanity's future. Sustainable development balances economic and environmental issues, and is key to humanity's future.
Credit: PopTika - Shutterstock.

Dolif believes that, as the harmful effects of human exploitation on the environment are becoming more and more evident, the tendency is for people and companies to become aware. "Those who resist, at some point, depending on the policy, the government, the tendency is that these actions that destroy the environment will lose strength, lose funding."

He highlights that there are several initiatives by companies and financial institutions, public and private, already aligned with the environmental issue. "Although some sectors still insist on not seeing this, large lines of financing from large banks or aid from large funds are being directed towards protecting and defending the environment."

For the researcher, "companies that come out at the forefront and realize that destroying the environment is a thing of the past, and begin to defend an ideology of more sustainable production, tend, in the future, to prosper more than those that do not still understood that"

Treating nature as an ally, exploiting its resources in the right way, can be the way to bring the balance that the issue requires: economic development without destroying the environment. “There are many ways for us to extract wealth from the forest. So, it is possible to extract wealth from the Amazon forest by keeping it standing, without destroying it. It has biological and genetic wealth to produce cosmetics, produce medicines. The cure for many diseases can be there. So, researching this biological wealth can bring very large financial resources, without destroying the forest” warns Dolif.

It is more than clear: if water is an essential good, the lack of it has social, economic and environmental impacts. Hence, the need for rational and conscientious use of water and other natural resources.


Text: Flávia Correia

Edição: Rafael Rigues

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