Drought in the Amazon

I’ve been keeping an eye on a long-running story in the Amazon basin over the past several months; an intense drought which has brought water-rationing to large areas of Brasil and just a few days ago threatened to depopulate Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America and home to 20 million people.

It’s not the first time drought has hit the Amazon basin. In 2010, the Amazon was hit by a devastating drought which caused major rivers to run dry, trees to die and led to extensive fires as the dry, dead wood was set alight by lightning strikes. There were astounding pictures of the Brazilian government flying water supplies to villages normally on the banks of the world’s biggest river, because there was nothing but sand in the riverbed. There was a lot of discussion at the time about climate change in the Amazon basin and what it could mean for the rest of the planet if we allowed the Amazon rainforest to disappear.

As we can now see, the net result of all that worry was….. nothing happened. No new reservoirs, no restrictions on logging, illegal or legal, and as a consequence, here’s another drought and it’s nearly brought Brazil’s biggest city to the point of rationing water to just 2 days a week to all its 20 million residents.

2 days a week. Think about that. How would you cope if you turned the taps on and nothing came out? You’d be okay for a day, perhaps, maybe go buy some bottled water? (Except there are other people with the same idea). Every human needs 2L of clean, potable water a day to survive – more in hot climates or if you’re working hard and losing fluids through sweat. You need more to cook food, wash clothes, clean your teeth, flush the toilet…. the average UK household uses 150L of water a day.

Do you have 150L of water stored in your home? It weighs 150kg, plus packaging, so be careful where you stack those bottles! Upstairs is not a good idea. Ideally you want it in a dark, cool place (to restrict the growth of algae) and on a solid floor, not the loft. You need to rotate your water stash – about every 18 months or so – otherwise when you crack open the bottle, you’re might find a complex ecosystem flourishing in there. A couple of drops of thin unscented household bleach per litre helps prevent it all going green, but over time the chlorine wears off and you need to empty the bottles, scrub them out and refill them.

That’s a fair bit of work, though you can spread the load over time by doing a few bottles a month rather than all at once. You can lessen the load by conserving water! 50L a day to flush the loo with clean drinking water? Do you really need a long hot shower every day? And don’t even think about watering the garden or washing the car….

Back in the mid-70s, we had a severe drought in the UK – the first I was aware of.  I remember my parents taking us for a picnic at one of the reservoirs for Manchester, up in the Peak District. I remember the cracked mud that stretched for such a long way (I was only small!) from the grass at the top to the not-very-much water at the bottom. Cars had bumper stickers reading ‘Save Water – Have a Dirty Weekend’ to remind everyone only to bathe when necessary. We shared bathwater – eldest brother had first dip, then next brother used the same (cooling) water for his bath, then my sister and I shared the (tepid and somewhat grimy) water for our quick splash around. We put a brick in the toilet cistern to reduce the capacity, so less water was used in flushing the toilet (you can get the same effect with a plastic bag of water – or anything else that displaes water and don’t bung the works up). As things continued, we had a rule that you only flushed for excrement, not urine. Then we went on to saving the washing-up water in a bucket to pour down the loo so we weren’t using drinking water for flushing at all. I’ve retained the habit of having a daily wash rather than a daily shower ever since. You can get just as clean from a basin of hot water, a bar of soap and a flannel as you can from a shower or a bath, and it saves an immense amount of water and heating energy!

Most people in the UK don’t store water. You turn the taps and it falls out, no problem. But the people of Sao Paulo thought that, too, a few months ago. Now they’re facing reservoirs with only 8.9% of their water and the taps don’t work. Restaurants can’t wash plates, people can’t wash clothes, schools can’t cook dinners. People are reduced to trudging to whatever water sources they can locate and filling up every container they can carry. The Brazilian government were getting close to telling people to leave the city and flee, apparently.

It’s now started raining there, apparently, so they’re breathing sighs of relief, but what odds they don’t learn from this lesson either? In which case, in a few years, it’ll happen again, when the next drought arrives.

I wonder if anyone in Sao Paulo will think to start storing clean drinking water?

And before everyone outside Brazil starts feeling smug, remember those drought predictions for the US? Here’s a good site to start doing some research, too. Pay attention to that throwaway comment on the fifth line about the Brazilian coffee crop not happening this year! (Hint: price of coffee likely to rise so stock up now, coffee drinkers!)

IPCC AR5 indicated that the dry areas would get drier, so a good guess as to future conditions can be made by looking at current drought areas and simply enlarging them over time. If (when?) the Amazon rainforest succumbs to drought, fire and logging, we can probably expect tropical and subtropical droughts to get much more severe and prolonged – the Amazon, like other large rainforests, creates its own climate and without it, rainfall is going to drop.

Think it can’t happen here? Think again. Think hard, particularly if you live in an area already prone to droughts, like the south-east of England. London already gets less rain than Istanbul!

There’s another question here that I’m mulling over, and that’s…. how long will people cling to their homes, jobs, businesses, when they know they face not having any water? (three days without water and your body starts to die!) And why? Did anyone look at the reservoir levels and think, blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m offski? Or do humans have this irrational attachment to place, even over survival? How bad does it have to get before you give up your belongings in favour of safeguarding your life?

More importantly yet, when dire circumstances do finally get people on the move….. how desperate are they and what will they do if you’re in the way?

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