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How razing the rainforest has created a devastating drought in Brazil

Twenty million people in Sao Paolo now face severe rationing due to the disruption of the
far-away Amazon's rain-making machine

An aerial view of the Jaguari dam station, part of the Cantareira reservoir Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters

By Geoffrey Lean
1:53PM GMT 16 Feb 2015

It used to be known as drizzle city, but now Sao Paolo South America's biggest conurbation is
now being compared with a desert. In what should be the middle of a rainy season, it is so dry that its
20 million inhabitants face having their water cut off for five days a week.
The giant Cantareira reservoir system, which supplies nine million people, is now only 5 per cent full,
and predicted to run dry in April. The smaller Alto Triet system, which serves three million people in
the city, is a little better off, but still only 15 per cent full. With the dry season due, it is calculated that
only severe rationing can stop the city's water from running out altogether before the rains start again
in November.
Some economies have so far been made.The daily amount extracted from reservoirs has been cut by
22 per cent, and some residents are already having their water cut off for 16 hours a day. But far more
is needed, and there have been warnings that, before long, the taps will only run on two days each
week.

Already, better-off citizens are buying large tanks in the hope of being able to hoard water. Many
apartment blocks are trucking the stuff in at great cost; others are trying to drill wells. But most of the
people can resort to none of these measures. Water riots could be on the cards.
Years of maladministration and neglect play some role in this. The gathering crisis was ignored in the
run-up to last year's World Cup, and in the elections that followed it. So does lack of maintenance: it
is estimated that 40 per cent of the Brazil's water supplies are lost through leaking pipes and outdated
infrastructure.
But population growth and other environmental factors are also to blame. Climate change is believed
to have had an effect. So is the way that cities burn so much energy they become 'heat islands',
sucking up moisture. But perhaps the biggest and most alarming factor behind the drought is
deforestation in the Amazon basin to the north.
Study after study has now shown that the vast Amazonian forest generates its own rain, with the trees
continuously recycling moisture blown in on easterly winds from the Atlantic. The rain-laden winds
go on travelling west until they hit the high barrier of the Andes, and then turn south and east,
dumping rain over the agricultural lands that form Brazil's breadbasket and Sao Paolo itself. This giant
rainmaking machine is now breaking down as its constituent parts disappear.
The one silver lining of this lack of clouds is that Brazilians finally seem to be waking up to the
problem. Social movements and unions are joining environmentalists in calling for the deforestation
to stop, as they see that ecological destruction brings poverty in its wake. Whether they succeed is
another matter.

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