Five Year Drought in Northeast Brazil
The Northeast (NE) region of Brazil encompasses the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí and Rio Grande do Norte; it covers 18 % of the Brazilian territory and is home to over 52 million people. The NE is known for its beautiful beaches and friendly people. It is also known for the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in the country, and its vulnerability to climate change, particularly prolonged droughts and flooding. The region is composed of mostly savannah land (Caatinga) in the interior and remnants of tropical rainforest (the Atlantic Forest) in the coastal areas, most of which—over 90%—are in the state of Bahia.
The Atlantic Forest has suffered extensive deforestation since the Portuguese colonised Brazil, in 1500. First for the extraction of hard wood (mostly the Caesalpinia echinata Lam, which is now almost extinct), and then in the early 17th century, for sugar cane plantations, which intensified in the second half of the 19th century. In the mid 1970s, the cocoa plantations and the pulp and paper industry further contributed to the degradation of this biome. There is an estimated 52,000 Kmsq left of the Atlantic Forest in the NE region, corresponding to about 5% of the original forested area found by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Given this history, the region is particularly vulnerable to desertification, aggravated by climate change.
The Northeast region of Brazil has suffered a five-year drought that is expected to reach a record six-year period by the end of 2017. This is arguably the worst drought on record in the past 100 years. There is high risk of wild fires in remaining forest areas, drying-out of reservoirs and famine in rural areas.
The state of Bahia, a popular tourist destination both domestically and internationally, is suffering a period of unusual drought since 2011. This drought has affected over a million people in the region. Summer (December through March) in the NE is usually the rainy season. However, the 2016/2017 summer has been an exceptional one. Per the National Water Agency (ANA) that monitors droughts, there has been a significant decrease in rainfall in most of the region. Maranhão and Piauí have contributed with normal patterns of rainfall to lessen the general impact of the unusually dry period in other states, including Bahia. Most of the Bahia territory was classified as exceptionally or very dry and the affected areas have expanded in the past years. Impacts were considered as long term (ANA, 2017).
Feira de Santana is a town located 100 km from the state capital, Salvador. In the past 12 months, the average rainfall in the city has been 12 times less than expected. The State University of Bahia in Feira de Santana forecast 50 mm rainfall for the first quarter of 2017, but so far, only 4mm has fallen in the city. The city has been in a state of emergency since 2011.
Farmers are being hit severely by the drought, and over 64,000 people living in the rural areas surrounding the city are suffering from water shortages and diminished crops. They must walk up to 300 m to fetch water from a spring, which by now is contaminated and almost dry. One farmer reports that it hasn’t rained since July 2016, “even the palm trees are dying”, and he has no hope of recovering his small cassava plantation.
Since December last year, the Ministry of National Integration (MIN) published ordinances acknowledging an emergency in 277 municipalities in Bahia—65% of the cities in the state—due to the NE drought. The measure allows municipalities access to financial aid from federal emergency funds and resources, including water provision and health assistance. The measure also provides support to farmers in debt due to crop losses, and further subsidies from the Brazilian Social Development Bank (BNDES) for agriculture.
The NE region is historically vulnerable to desertification and is expected to suffer the most from climate change. Despite warnings from climate experts and scientific institutions in Brazil, no long-term policies are being implemented in the region to address desertification enhanced by climate change.
Sources in Portuguese
TRIBUNA DA BAHIA. Newspaper. Published 21 December 2016. Available at http://www.tribunadabahia.com.br/2016/12/21/seca-na-bahia-afeta-mais-de-um-milhao
G1 Globo.com website. Published 10 March 2017, 10:45pm at http://g1.globo.com/bahia/noticia/2017/03/ministerio-reconhece-situacao-de-emergencia-em-17-cidades-na-bahia.html
G1 Globo.com website. Published 08 March 2017. Available at http://g1.globo.com/bahia/noticia/2017/02/estiagem-atinge-15-mil-produtores-em-cidade-no-sudoeste-baiano.html
National Water Agency (ANA) http://monitordesecas.ana.gov.br/
EBC Brasil. Official communications agency. Published 26 January 2017. Available at
FOLHA DE SÃO PAULO. Newspaper. Published in 19 March 2017. Available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2017/03/1867771-em-meio-a-maior-seca-transposicao-do-rio-sao-francisco-divide-nordestinos.shtml