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They Make Water Out of Sludge in Sao Paulo Now

With El Nino settling into a strong-to-monstrous mode and with the world now baking under 1 C of global temperature increases since the 1880s, a large swath from South American through to the Caribbean is suffering from extreme drought.

Drought South America

As we can see in the above map (provided by NOAA) most of South America is experiencing the impact of significant to severe rainfall deficits. Northern Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest are at the epicenter of water losses. But Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and Peru all show substantial drying. It’s a drought that stretches all the way up into the Caribbean. One that has set off water rationing over broad regions. Even the US territory of Puerto Rico hasn’t been left unscathed by this wide-ranging drying. There, 160,000 residents and businesses have seen water turned off for 48 hours and then back on for 24 hours. Another 185,000 are losing water services in 24-hour cycles, a further 10,000 are on a 12-hour rationing plan. A hand of drought that had, as of last week, stretched its desiccating fingers all the way to South Florida — setting off wildfires and sending billowing plumes of smoke into Palm Beach skies.

Water From Sludge

But, in all this wide-ranging drought, there are few places where the situation is so acute as it is in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There, the drought is so severe that it has inflicted water rationing on the populace ever since early 2014. A situation that has gone from bad to steadily worse. At the epicenter of these losses is a massive reservoir called the Cantareira. A great lake once filled with enough reserves to supply over 6 million people that has been reduced to what amounts to a giant, drying puddle of mud. A situation that has forced water managers to pump sludge from the Cantareira’s previous dead pool zone and into treatment facilities in order to provide water to Sao Paulo citizens:

Cantareira Reservoir

(“Water like what comes out of the back end of a cow” [hat tip to Andy] being fed from the Cantareira reservoir and into Sao Paulo’s water supplies during February of 2015. Image source: The Telegraph.)

Essentially, in order to provide water, Brazil’s utility managers have been forced to put pump lines in the bottom of the muddy Cantareira reservoir. You can see the heads of these pumps as blue boxes in the above image. The pumps then feed the dead pool water into a spill-way that contacts the old water pump which is now too high in elevation to draw water from the drastically diminished pool.

The Cantareira reservoir is Sao Paulo’s largest, its most essential. At most, it contains about 40 million cubic meters of water remaining before it is bone dry. And it’s losing this water at a rate of 200,000 cubic meters each day. Even worse, it’s uncertain if all the remaining water can be accessed. But if it could, it would take just 200 days to completely bottom out the Cantareira at the current rate of losses. For reference, there are about 100 days left until the rainy season starts in Sao Paulo. But with El Nino strengthening and with the Amazon Rain Forest suffering severe water losses, it is uncertain whether this year’s rainy season will arrive on time.

Looking at the larger water system, the situation is equally stark. Alto Tiete, another Sao Paulo reservoir will reach a dead pool situation similar to the Cantareira in just 90 days at current rates of loss. And the entire water system of Sao Paulo will hit its maximum recoverable water in less than a year if losses are not somehow abated.

With the situation so stark, Sao Paulo water managers have drastically cut back on water outlays to the population. In total only about 54 percent of the typical outlay is reaching the public. The result is a very severe and ongoing situation of water rationing for the metropolis. But even worse would be the near complete loss of Sao Paulo’s water supply. A situation the city and region faces if the rains don’t arrive soon.

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Links:

Water Hoarding Frenzy Set off By Drought, Rationing in Puerto Rico

Palm Beach Wildfires

Sabesp Water Resources PDF

The Telegraph

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego (Note: Andy provided much of the research for the section on Sao Paulo reservoirs. To this point, Sabesp has become increasingly less transparent as the water situation there has grown more dire and Andy’s dynamite research was necessary to clear up a few of the more murky bits.)

(Please support public, non-special interest based science, like the critical information that was provided for this article by NOAA.)

(Please also support broad-based climate change policy solutions to reduce fossil fuel emissions, increase public access to renewable energy, and to reduce the climate change caused damage that is already locked in.)

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It’s Not Just Sao Paulo — Much of South America and Caribbean Swelters Under Extreme Drought

In Sao Paulo today, a Latin American megalopolis that is now home to 20 million people, public water supplies are cut off for as long as three days at a time. But despite this draconian rationing, the Cantareira Reservoir sits at 9 percent below dead pool. A level so low that utility managers had to install new pipes into the reservoir bottom to tap water supply dregs. A controversial policy due to the fact that drawing water from so low in the pool both results in fish kills and in much more polluted water going into rivers (like the foaming Tiete) and the drinking and bathing supply.

Cantareira Reservoir bone dry

(The Cantareira Reservoir has been bone dry for more than a year and a half now. Severe water rationing has managed to keep levels about steady for the time being. Image source: UOL.)

At least the dramatic cuts in water usage appear to have slowed to a near halt further water declines from the key reservoir. Levels have remained at around -9 percent below dead pool volume ever since the rainy season ended two months ago. But Sao Paulo still has at least four months of dry season ahead. And the weather for Brazil’s largest city, for most of Brazil itself, for Colombia and for the Caribbean remains exceptionally dry.

Drought Extends Over Much of South America, Caribbean

Much attention has been paid to the Sao Paulo drought. This is likely due to the very dire water situation immediately threatening 20 million people with severe water rationing, increased risk of waterborne illness (see Dengue Fever strikes Sao Paulo), and spurring migration to less water stressed regions. But the quiet truth, less widely reported, is that a massive swath of Latin America is also suffering major drought.

Latin American Drought

(South American precipitation deficits and surpluses over the past six months shows widespread, severe drought. Image source: NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.)

The drought centers over the tree-depleted and human settlement invaded Amazon Rainforest. There half year moisture deficits are in the range of 400 millimeters or greater (16+ inches). A level of extraordinary drought in a region that supplies critical moisture to the surrounding states and nations. Years of clear cutting, slash and burn agriculture, and ramping temperatures due to human-caused climate change have taken a terrible toll on the Amazon. Now its resiliency is compromised with drought a common-place occurrence even as hundreds of wildfires burn away at the forest understory every year.

The warming climate (greenhouse emissions based), the water cycle disrupting clear cutting, and the fires all take their toll, resulting in a declining rainforest health and related moisture levels. The worst years of all are El Nino years — when warming Equatorial Pacific waters enhance drought potentials all throughout the Amazon of Northern Brazil. And the 2015 El Nino is no exception, with worsening drought conditions building at center mass over the Amazon River Basin and its related rainforests.

Prevailing and intensifying drought in the Amazon has far-flung impacts. The region acts as a kind of atmospheric moisture reservoir — sending out streams of flying rivers toward the North, South and East. In this way a healthy Amazon rainforest pumps up the clouds over vast regions, enabling rainfall from Colombia to the Caribbean and throughout Brazil. But an ailing, warming, drought-sweltered and clear-cut rainforest loses its ability to send out flying rivers. Instead, it dries out at its heart.

Amazon Water Vapor

(Often visible from the air, the trees of the Amazon release vast clouds of water vapor into the air. These ‘flying rivers’ are now drying up as the Amazon is warmed by human climate change, burned by understory fires, and clear cut by human development. Image source: Climate News Network.)

For some places in Colombia, this has meant residents suffering through drought for more than three years. In La Guajira, some residents are suffering loss of life due to lack of water and related food stores. The situation is complicated due to the fact that most of the water from depleted aquifer supplies for the region now goes to industrial uses like irrigation-fed international farms or the largest open pit coal mine in the world. This leaves very little water left for residents and what supplies remain are often brackish and polluted.

In the Caribbean, more than 1.5 million people are now affected by drought with many also facing severe water rationing. Water shortages, withering crops, dead cattle, and disruption to tourism has impacted far-flung island nations from Puerto Rico to St Lucia to Cuba to the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, the situation is rapidly worsening with civil engineers stating that many of the island nation’s towns have less than thirty days of water left. Reports from other regions like Haiti are more spotty but indications are that these are also heavily impacted (Haiti is terribly deforested and, as a result, has very little resiliency to any form of extreme weather).

With El Nino still ramping up and with global temperatures likely to continue to hit new record highs (due to the heating effect of excessive fossil fuel emissions and CO2 levels hitting above 400 parts per million [above 480 CO2e] for the first time in at least 3 million years) throughout 2015, drought conditions for the Amazon, for Brazil, for Colombia and for the Caribbean will likely continue to worsen for at least the next six months. And to this point it is worth re-stating that crushing drought conditions are not confined to Sao Paulo but instead range from Uruguay through Brazil, Venezuala, Colombia and on into much of the Caribbean Island Chain.

Links:

Brazilian Drought Woes

The Tiete River is Foaming With Pollution

UOL

SABESP

Dengue Fever Strikes Sao Paulo

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Tropical Forests Release 2 Gigatons of Carbon Each Year

The Amazon’s Flying Rivers are Drying Up

Climate News Network

Drought and Corruption Result in Loss of Life in Columbia

Caribbean Facing Worst Drought in Five Years

Hat Tip to Greg

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Reservoir at 5 Percent Capacity: Climate Change to Leave Sao Paulo’s 20 Million Without Water By November?

Suffering from its worst drought in over 84 years, the city of Sao Paulo is in the midst of a crisis. For as of this weekend the city’s primary reservoir — the Cantareira — had dropped to just 5 percent capacity putting millions at risk of losing access to water.

The fall prompted the city’s governor — Geraldo Alckmin — to again ask for permission to draw emergency water supplies from below flood gates to alleviate catastrophic losses from the Cantareira and ensure water supplies to the region’s 20 million residents. The move would tap a river system that feeds two other states also facing water shortages — Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.  But the draw is only a temporary stop gap and, without rain, the Cantareira will continue to fall — bottoming out sometime this November.

cantareira-reservoir-sadesp-sao-paulo-brazil-february-2014

(Dam and section of Cantareira Reservoir high and dry under incessant drought conditions. Image source: Linhas Populares.)

Don’t Use the ‘R’ Word

The Cantareira provides water to nearly 50 percent of Sao Paulo’s residents. But ever since February of 2014 the multi-year long drought, a drought that has featured less and less seasonal rainfall over time, has triggered reduced water access by city and state residents.

Those living within areas served by the Cantareira have been treated to increasing periods of dry taps — being forced to go for longer and longer without available water supply. The intermittent lack of water service has put a strain on businesses and residents alike with many people living in Sao Paulo being forced to abstain from washing, cooking and brewing. For now, water for drinking can be stored during times when the faucets flow. But that time could come to an end all too soon without a change in the weather.

“Sometimes I have no water for two days, then it comes back on the next day and the day after that, I have no water again,” said Zeina Reis da Cruz, a 55 year old resident of one of Sao Paulo’s lower income neighborhoods in a September 25 interview with The Globe and Mail.

Despite an ongoing and growing failure to provide water services, the city refuses to use the word ‘rationing.’ Such an admission of failure would have weighed heavily on Alckmin’s re-election campaign (Alckmin was just recently elected to a new term as governor). Instead, irate citizens and businesses making calls to utilities are simply told that there is nothing wrong with the water supply and to wait until the water comes back on.

Regardless of politically-motivated denials, water rationing is the most accurate way to describe what many Sao Paulo residents have been experiencing for 9 months now under a regime of systemic drought that just grows steadily worse with time.

Climate Change Spurred by Deforestation, Worsened By Atmospheric Heating

The great forest of the Amazon provides a rich source of water for both Brazil and surrounding countries. It captures as much as 80 percent of the tropical atmosphere’s heavy moisture load and re-circulates it locally – providing ongoing and consistent rains. A critical means of replenishing regional water sources.

But, over recent decades, a combination of clear cutting and human-spurred warming of the climate have been adding severe stresses to the Amazon. During the period of 2000 to 2010, the great rainforest lost 93,000 square miles of wooded land alone to clear cutting. By 2014, government restrictions had brought down the rate of loss to around 2,300 square miles per year, but by this time warming-related impacts to the Amazon were looking even more dire.

As the 2000s progressed, it was becoming ever-more-clear that a heating climate driven by human fossil fuel emissions was taking an increasing toll. For, during recent decades, the Amazon has been warming at a rate of around 0.25 C every ten years — about twice as fast as the global climate system. The added heat increased evaporation, pushing soil moisture levels below critical thresholds.

Drought Map South America

(It’s not just Sao Paulo, most of South America is showing ongoing rainfall deficits. Map provided by NOAA shows percent of normal precipitation received by South America this summer. Note the severe drying over much of the Amazon Rainforest and broader South America coupled with drought over Sao Paulo. Image source: Climate Prediction Center.)

This loss has, in turn, increased the prevalence of forest-destroying understory fires. And, according to a 2012 NASA study these understory fires have been burning away the Amazon at the rate of more than 30,000 square miles every ten years for nearly two decades. By late this Century, business as usual fossil fuel emissions and related warming of 4 degrees Celsius is expected to destroy about 85 percent of the Amazon, resulting in widespread desertification of a once-lush region.

Today, this period of initial drying caused by a human heating of the atmosphere appears to be putting the stability of Brazil’s most populous city at risk.

A Major Humanitarian Disaster

Typically for October, Sao Paulo receives between 80 and 100 mm of rainfall. So far this month, the number is approaching zero. Long range forecasts bring that total to just above 50 mm through the end of the month — about half the usual rainfall. Very dry for a month that is supposed to be the start of Sao Paulo’s rainy season, a period that usually runs from October through March. A rainy season once fed by a now greatly endangered and increasingly moisture-impoverished Amazon rainforest.

It would take a massive rainfall to replenish Sao Paulo’s reserves. The kind of rain event that would result in widespread devastation should it emerge. Now, city officials appear to be holding out for any rain to tip the scales on their swiftly shrinking water stores.

But if the worse happens. If this year is a repeat of last year which saw a parched rainy season. If the rains of October and November continue to delay or do not emerge at all, then Sao Paulo faces a terrible event. A complete drying out of its largest water store and a complete cut-off of water supplies for millions of residents.

It’s like Paulo Nobre, director of the Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies at the National Institute for Space Research in Brasilia, recently noted:

“It will be a real humanitarian disaster if it happens. We are 20 million people: You can’t bring water on trucks for 20 million. So they are praying that rainfall will come – but it may not rain so much.”

Links:

Sao Paulo Water Supply at Risk in Extreme Drought

Unprecedented Drought Puts Sao Paulo Water Supply at Risk

Brazil Drought Crisis Deepens in Sao Paulo

Climate Conditions Determine Amazon Forest Fire Risk

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center

Reversal of Fortune: Amazon Deforestation Increased by 28 Percent Over Past Year

Amazon Could Shrink by 85% Due to Climate Change

Sao Paulo Weather Forecast

Linhas Populares

Impacts of Deforestation

(Hat tip to Andy)

(Hat tip to Colorado Bob)

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