Political Implications Of Brazil’s Drought

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), a detailed analysis of the political implications of Brazil’s drought:

A general view shows the Jaguari Dam, one of the main reservoirs supplying Sao Paulo, Brazil, with its water level to 12 percent of its total capacity on April 25.


The current drought in Brazil has already affected the country’s energy and agriculture sectors. Municipalities — specifically Sao Paulo — are now facing possible supply shortages as the drought continues. A few solutions can be implemented in the short term. The government is likely to promote conservation measures, and increased water rationing appears unavoidable. This could negatively affect the ruling party in Sao Paulo State, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, in upcoming elections.

The elections are still six months away, but water rationing in Brazil’s largest voting center and the heart of the party supporting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s challenger Aecio Neves does not bode well for Neves or his party. Voters in the region are likely to blame the Brazilian Social Democracy Party for the water situation because water management is the responsibility of the Sao Paulo State-owned water and sanitation utility, commonly known as Sabesp, not the federal government. The ongoing water shortage could further lift Rousseff and Eduardo Campos, the other opposition presidential candidate, in the October vote.


The drought has caused Brazil’s natural gas imports to rise at the same time as hydropower potential decreases. It has also curtailed production of many of Brazil’s crops and contributed to an increase in some commodity prices, including coffee. Domestic water consumption has not remained untouched either. Although other cities in Brazil — including some suburbs of Sao Paulo — have already begun water rationing and there have been anecdotal reports of individual homes without access to water, Sao Paulo’s city administration previously assured its constituents that water rationing would not be required.

However, the greater municipal region of Sao Paulo has already reached a critical point. The city relies heavily on reservoirs for its water supply as opposed to groundwater, which currently makes a minimal contribution. Now, one of Sao Paulo’s key reserves, the Cantareira system, has fallen to dangerously low levels. The linked reservoirs supply roughly 45 percent of the city, more than 8 million people, with water. In February, the system as a whole fell to 10 percent of its maximum capacity. The Sao Paulo state water and sanitation utility invested $36 million in pumping system that allowed additional water at the bottom of reservoirs to be pumped out. This previously inaccessible water, known as dead water, added to the system’s useable volume, bringing the maximum useful volume from approximately 980 million cubic meters to roughly 1.2 billion cubic meters. With the addition of the dead water, the stock currently in the reservoir remains at roughly 260 million cubic meters. The system still remains dangerously low. Without the dead water, the reservoir level would be at only 7.7 percent of the maximum capacity.

Water System in the Metropolitan System of Sao Paulo

The state secretary of sanitation and water resources claims that the water supply will last through March 2015, even without water rationing. Counter to this, however, other estimates from the state water utility and anti-crisis committees give a much shorter estimate of October or November. All of these predictions assume some level of rain. While water production rates have already been reduced twice during the drought, at a production rate of roughly 30 cubic meters per second, if no additional volume is added, the reservoir might only last until the end of August. The entire municipal region can consume upwards of 6 million cubic meters per day (from multiple systems, not just Cantareira).

Deeper Issues With the Water Supply

The quick fix of drawing on the dead water in the Cantareira system still does not solve the underlying problems Sao Paulo will face in terms of water over the next six months and beyond. The drought shows no signs of abating, and relief from Mother Nature cannot be assured (although the wetter than normal conditions which typically occur with a predicted El Nino could help in the coming months). While water transfers from rivers via pipes or channels from neighboring areas have been discussed, these solutions will take too long to have any kind of impact on the present shortage. At this time, there is no clear backup plan beyond accessing the dead water volume. Other short-term solutions, such as trucking in water, remain expensive and are politically constrained. The city has seen success over the last 15 years in decreasing average annual household consumption, but at the same time, the amount of water lost as it is distributed through the network remains high. Uncontrolled urban expansion and inadequate water infrastructure remain underlying problems for the greater Sao Paulo area.

Domestic demand will remain a priority over industrial demand. However, given the limited options for alternative water sources, there is little choice for the ruling body in Sao Paulo but to begin implementing water-rationing measures (although these measures may be given a different name). There has been an informal media campaign promoting waver-saving behavior as the World Cup approaches, and financial incentives are being offered to Sao Paulo residents who reduce water consumption by a specific percentage.

Political Blowback from Water Rationing

These actions will almost certainly affect the popularity of the party currently holding power in Sao Paulo, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. This is the largest opposition party in Brazil and is seeking a comeback in the general election in October. A water rationing policy (if implemented) could put pressure on the Brazilian Social Democracy Party at the state level, which has been in power in Sao Paulo state since the 1990s. Incumbent Gov. Geraldo Alckmin retains a substantial lead over the nearest competitor, Paulo Skaf (of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) in the most recent polls, with 43 percent to only 19 percent. However, Skaf has not shied away from bringing attention to the ongoing water crisis in public statements. With its very large voting population, Sao Paulo, along with Minas Gerais, is a key state for the Brazilian Social Democracy Party to carry if it is to win the upcoming presidential election.

On the national level, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party’s presidential candidate, Aecio Neves, is the main opposition for current president, Dilma Rousseff, in the coming elections. Neves is second to Rousseff in the most recent polls; Rousseff had 40 percent of the vote, and Neves had 20 percent. However, losing support from the voters in Sao Paulo as they are forced to ration water could widen the gap.

The election is six months away. The drought — and possible relief from it — remains beyond the government’s control. If relief were to come sooner than expected, the political situation could shift once again. Both the weather and elections are extremely difficult to predict. However, if nothing changes, the reservoir supplying water for nearly half of Brazil’s largest city could run dry within the next six months. Trucking in additional water would be costly both in financial and political terms because Sao Paulo is not the only region experiencing drought. Continuing water problems could also be used as an additional trigger for ongoing protests in the area. Ultimately, the management of vital resources, even through unpopular policies such as water rationing, will be necessary in light of the severity of the drought. This could negatively affect the ruling party in Sao Paulo State, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 28th, 2014 at 7:01 am and is filed under Brazil.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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