It’s official: Brazil is facing drought.
Earlier this month, the government issued a hydric emergency alert (AEH) for five of the twenty-seven federative units. It’s the first in over a century – more precisely, 111 years – which tells something about the seriousness of the situation.
The AEH will last from June through September when the rain season supposedly begins. It doesn’t sound like a big deal for a tropical country the size of a country with traditionally voluminous hydric resources.
However, the level of threat is now deemed “critical” by some agencies and institutes. Only a week ago, it was severe. Also, these states are some of the most industrialized in the country. A significant part of food production happens in these states.
Sometimes it feels like SHTF from all sides
Brazil’s drought and its impacts have a few differences to the one going on in the U.S. right now. Although consequences could be related and even interconnect at some point in the near future.
Starting with energy: the Brazilian power matrix is over 60% based on hydro generation, as I mentioned in a previous article about shifts in the global energy model. In other words, two-thirds of our electricity is water-dependent (that is, rain).
Empty reservoirs mean no electricity. An increase in thermal-generated power (i.e., coal, oil, gas) has entered the system to try and make up for the decline. Still, authorities and Grid administrators must feel the need to consider some form of rationing.
As expected, they announced a rise in electricity prices. The drought will predictably cascade into production, transportation, and services, contributing to the (already) swelling inflation and most likely knocking the GDP down a few points.
How long will the Brazil drought last?
Trying to forecast the climate is impossible, especially over such a long period. But as always, history comes to the rescue. Looking back helps put things in context and gives other perspectives on the present situation. I researched going back forty years in climate statistics to have an idea at least if the present drought is an anomaly or a trend. The outlook is not too encouraging for the regions currently under the AEH – or Brazil as a whole.
During that period (1981-2021), there were 15 years of above-average (A.A.) and 25 below-average (B.A.) precipitation (the average considered officially is between the years of 1981 and 2010). That alone doesn’t tell much, but looking at the distribution of these AA/BA years along the period considered, only four years of all fifteen above-average (A.A.) rainfall happened in the last 20 years.
In other words, it seems there’s been a decrease in overall rain volume since the turn of the century. Not only that: these four above-average years were some of the lowest in rain volume too. And it gets worse: the remaining 16 years were significantly dryer than those during the 1981-2000 period. The years 2001 and 2017 were particularly dry, way below the average annual precipitation volume.
Digging a little deeper into the data
I also checked the rainfall volume for other regions of the country. The first 20 years (1981 to 2000) of the chart concentrate the highest levels of rain and the most significant outliers in larger rain volume per year. The second half (2001 to 2021) has the most years below average, with also the “driest” outliers, or the most and lowest lows of rain.
Overall, the numbers show a similar trend, even at the extremes. For instance, the Amazon region (the wettest in Brazil – the Rainforest) shows the declining pattern seen in the northeastern as the most arid. In other words, we’re indeed witnessing a decline in annual rain volume in the entire country for the last forty years, with the trend seemingly accelerating since the year 2000.
The Global Drought Information system monitors current global drought and offers resources for forecasting drought. The website also has information on managing drought and other knowledge base resources.
Is drought caused by human activity or part of a natural cycle?
I have no idea, and realistically it changes little in practice. Science has yet to reach a consensus. Drought may or may not be tied to greenhouse effects or completely related to natural rain cycles. We’ve had dry spells before, many times, and in various degrees. Before this more recent 20-year decline, there was another equivalent period of relatively abundant rainfall.
How worrying is the situation? It Depends. If this is a natural cycle and we’ve reached the bottom (i.e., the trend reverses in the coming years and abundant rain returns), maybe not much. Nature heals fast when it does. But if this continues or worsens – even for just a few years going ahead, things can turn catastrophic.
Some may suggest that I use a more extensive database. Or that this doesn’t mean much. I couldn’t find reliable statistics on larger periods before that, so that leaves a question. But, there will still be potential, delayed consequences from the current situation. And this is what matters. That’s not doom and gloom, just the facts and connecting some dots.
On the other hand, we can not rule out the human factor
According to a study published by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser in 2015, global freshwater use has grown from 500 billion cubic meters (m3) in 1900 to over 4 trillion cubic meters in 2014. We’re inching closer to 8 billion souls on the planet. Population growth puts additional pressure on the system.
Since 1962 the renewable freshwater resource per capita (internal river flows and groundwater from rainfall) in Brazil has fallen from more than 70.000 cubic meters down to less than 30.000 in 2014. It’s still way above the world average (roughly 10.000m3), but a significant 40% reduction in just 50 years.
No matter how you look at it, “living is consuming.” There’s no way to exist in the world without incurring some impact. On the individual level, maybe, but certainly not as a society (and even less almost eight billion people). We need to find a balance there, for our own good.
Other facets of the rain and water issue
One is freshwater supply itself. The water used for consumption at homes, commerce, sanitation, etc., is just a fraction of the total water consumption. Agriculture and the entire industry are responsible for a much larger withdrawal: everything takes enormous amounts of freshwater to produce.
Not everyone realizes this. I tell about the near-SHTF water shortages and rationing in my urban survival training book and what it caused here. Years passed, and we’re now back to the same state of complacency, with people feeling safe and believing water shortage won’t ever be a problem again.
That way of thinking is bad for two main reasons, which are connected:
- people wait for the situation to go from bad to worse to critical to grow a conscience and start saving resources
- people waste a valuable and essential resource that has been on a decline. Both cause the accelerating of problems. And then there’s a point where hoarding can make it ugly.
Regardless of what the data shows, there’s been increased recurrences of issues connected to water supply in the last few years. Energy is once again being affected. Water supply (and thus sanitation) will likely feel the effect as well. It’s only logical that food production will get hit at some point if drought persists or worsens.
How will Brazil’s drought effect the population and the economy?
Energy and food are two critical economic, (geo)political, social, and consequently social stability factors. Anywhere, at any time. The two are deeply connected, and strikes in one have considerable consequences in the other (and therefore the whole Grid). Both are also affected heavily by climate, so the droughts play a significant role indeed.
Governments of countries with large populations always worry about food supply. They fear losing control if things go bad. Shortages, disruptions, and prolonged fluctuations in food supply quickly make people uneasy. If food insecurity persists, this soon turns into tension and then revolt. It could make the government clamp down even further to keep control.
Some say this happens by design as part of a global conspiracy. It may be in some places and has happened before, as we know. But does anyone has any hard proof of an ongoing worldwide conspiracy for widespread famine? I haven’t found any.
Brazil is a worldwide commodity and food producer
China, U.S., Turkey, Russian, and India are others topping the list. The potential effects of droughts and overall rain decline are exceedingly concerning. When threats to food production, present or forecast, start popping up everywhere, especially in some global-scale players, things take another proportion.
The US also does a lot of business with Brazil. According to the US Dept. of State:
Brazil’s main imports from the United States are aircraft, machinery, petroleum products, electronics, and optical and medical instruments. The United States is Brazil’s second-largest export market. The primary products are crude oil, aircraft, iron and steel, and machinery. (source)
Fortunately, the drought hasn’t affected food production – at least for the time being. Independent research and government estimates report an expected 3,2% growth in Brazil’s 2021 annual grain harvest. Much of that is already committed to export. Primarily to China and U.S., which are paying above local market prices and jacking prices up quite a bit on a spiral.
It’s impossible to tell what the future holds
It probably won’t be TEOTWAWKI. I remember all the 1980’s apocalyptic talk of fossil fuels drying out by 2000. Then it was the Amazon rainforest becoming a desert by 2010. Then the ozone layer would be over by 2020, and we’d all be barbecued.
The world is always about to end or face some severe shortage that will kill humankind or eradicate the life on the planet. Humanity lives this pendulum, this constant clash between opposing propagandas, agendas, and ongoing paranoia. Maybe this dynamic is what’s responsible for avoiding many of these disasters. Perhaps it has no connection to anything.
But it’s not like everything will be fine, either. The facts are there. They matter. And there are other threats, too. The Earth doesn’t have to become a desert for things to unwind. All it takes is a series of strategical or enduring (or both) disruptions, even small ones, to bring an essential system out of balance and onto a tipping point. And then, SHTF.
What are the practical consequences that matter?
Considering the seasonal cycle of food production, what are the potential (delayed) impacts of Brazil’s 2021 drought? Is this a trend or just an exception? Will water become another rare and disputed commodity? Is the weather changing? Will the droughts accelerate and spread?
There’s no way to tell for sure. But when it comes to the practical effects in our smaller circles (quoting Selco once again), it’s possible to make some predictions. Considering future ripple effects of multiple droughts and other stresses in the production and supply systems (as comprehensively mentioned in many of Robert’s articles), we should expect severe inflation and even shortages.
Will this affect Brazil’s exports to the U.S., Europe and the Middle East?
Surely, Brazil’s drought will affect many things, including its exports to other countries. I can’t see how it won’t. So perhaps it’s better to be asking by how much, in which ways, and how soon. Remember, everything is connected.
There are possible consequences that could directly affect us. Both inflation and shortages bring a serious potential for widespread civil unrest. And that is another area where we should be prepped and ready.
What are your thoughts about such widespread droughts? Let’s talk about it in the comments.
Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.
Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times.
You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor