The northeast of Brazil is still experiencing its longest drought ever, going on since 2010, with climate change to blame. The water scarcity has had a devastating impact on local agriculture and fishery, but that’s not the end of it, for local communities.
With the reservoirs of the hydroelectric plants – the country’s main source of electricity – empty and for lack of investments in other renewable energy sources, the government has to activate the fossil fuel-fired thermoelectric plants. These plants, in addition to being more polluting, often contaminate rivers and underground reservoirs, and use in its activities large amounts of the little potable water left.
This is the case of the Pecém Industrial and Port Complex, located in the metropolitan region of Fortaleza, the capital of the northeastern state of Ceará. Pecém I and II are the two largest coal-fired thermoelectric plants in the country and are authorized by the state government to collect up to 800 liters of water per second (or 70 million liters per day) from the Castanhão Water Reservoir, which could supply a city of 600,000.
The largest multi-purpose and public reservoir in the country, Castanhão supplies the entire metropolitan region of Fortaleza, where almost half of the state’s population lives. Last November the reservoir reached its dead volume and stopped supplying the city for more than 20 days. With Castanhão being empty, the government began to explore other locations, including protected areas such as the Environmental Preservation Area of Lagamar do Cauípe, where many indigenous and riverside communities live, and whose natural resources they depend on.
At the end of 2017, the Anacé indigenous people of Barra do Cauipe saw a group of workers, accompanied by police officers, begin operations to withdraw water from Lagamar do Cauípe to supply the Pecém Complex. With the support of popular movements and civil organizations, Anacé leaderships obtained a state court injunction ordering the interruption of the works. The project, which aims to extract 200 liters of water per second from the area, could highly compromise the already sparse water resources in the region.
“In one of the worst water crisis in the state, the government is allowing the water meant for the population’s primary consumption, to be diverted to industrial interests. They enter the territory without asking for permission, without consulting the traditional communities that live there. This only further intensifies the existing conflicts in the region,” said chief Roberto Marques, leader of the Anacé indigenous people.
In addition to its environmental importance, Lagamar do Cauípe is also essential for the livelihood of local communities and for the maintenance of fishing and tourism activities in the region. Not to mention cultural and spiritual matters. “My people believe that our ancestors, the ‘enchanted ones’, still live in the Cauípe lagoon. But just like water, they can also disappear. If the government wants to kill our land, then they will kill us too. It may already be all lost, but we will not lose without fighting.”
In Brazil, the Northeastern semi-arid region will be the most severely affected by climate change. According to the latest IPCC data, the temperature in the region, which has historically suffered from periodic droughts, is expected to increase from 2°C to 5°C by 2100 if nothing is done to stop the planet from warming.
According to projections, a total of 1,488 Brazilian cities and 36 million people – or a fifth of its population – will be directly affected by lack of water in the very near future. The state of Ceará is already experiencing the first life-threatening impacts of climate change.
“The greatest impact in the region is certainly the water scarcity, which in turn generates direct impacts on the economy and people’s health. The increase in temperature, coupled with a lower rainfall rate, makes the surface reservoirs dry faster, ending with the main source of human supplies,” explains Nicolas Fabre, advisor of Rural and Environment Development of the Association of Municipalities of the State of Ceará.
According to him, the problem is not so much of rainfall volume, but of its distribution in time and space. “Some municipalities receive in only one day half the amount of rain expected for the whole year, and in the other they are completely dry. They declare a state of emergency because of the floods, and six months later they declare emergency due to the drought. In addition, these torrential rains cause silting of the rivers, which reduces their water storage capacity, since they are filled with sand and sediments,” he said.
The consequences for livelihoods are also putting in jeopardy the lives of many in the region. A few years ago Ceará had become the federal state with the largest production of tilapia fish. Today, it does not even appear in official statistics. “If there is no water, there is no fish. The family producers and the artisanal fishermen have to resort to government aid, and unemployment and poverty trends have risen again.”
The Brazilian government currently subsidies fossil fuel production in direct and indirect ways for a total of over 66 billion USD, nearly half of which are tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry.
If that money were to be invested in policies to foster technologies for resilience and adaptation and on the development of a solid renewable energy infrastructure, the people of Ceará could hope to save their water sources and with them their livelihoods and traditional way of living.
Read the full People’s Dossier on 1.5°C here.