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Brazil’s desperate battle for water

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The shrunken carcasses of cows lie in scorched fields outside the city of Campina Grande in northeast Brazil, and hungry goats search for food on the cracked-earth floor of the Boqueirao reservoir that serves the desperate town.

After five years of drought, farmer Edivaldo Brito says he cannot remember when the Boqueirao reservoir was last full. But he has never seen it this empty.

‘We’ve lost everything: bananas, beans, potatoes,’ Brito said. ‘We have to walk three kilometres just to wash clothes.’

Brazil’s arid northeast is weathering its worst drought on record and Campina Grande, which has 400,000 residents that depend on the reservoir, is running out of water.

After two years of rationing, residents complain that water from the reservoir is dirty, smelly and undrinkable. Those who can afford to do so buy bottled water to cook, wash their teeth with, and even to give their pets.

The reservoir is down to four per cent of capacity and rainfall is expected to be sparse this year.

‘If it does not fill up, the city’s water system will collapse by mid-year,’ says Janiro Costa Rego, an expert on water resources and hydraulics professor at Campina Grande’s federal university. ‘It would be a holocaust. You would have to evacuate the city.’

Brazil’s government says help is finally on the way.

After decades of promises and years of delays, the government says the rerouting of Brazil’s longest river, the Sao Francisco, will soon relieve Campina Grande and desperate farmers in four parched northeastern states.

Water will be pumped over hills and through 400 kilometres of canals into dry river basins in Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, and Paraiba, the small state of which Campina Grande is the second-biggest city.

Begun in 2005 by leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the project has been delayed by political squabbles, corruption and cost-overruns of billions of dollars.

Brazil’s ongoing recession, which economists calculate has shrunk the economy of the impoverished northeast by over four per cent during each of the past two years, made things even worse.

Now, President Michel Temer is speeding up completion of the project, perhaps his best opportunity to boost support for his unpopular government in a region long-dominated by native-son Lula and his leftist Workers Party.

In early March, Temer plans to open a canal that will feed Campina Grande’s reservoir at the town of Monteiro. The water will still take weeks to flow down the dry bed of the Paraiba river to Boqueirao.

With the quality of water in Campina Grande dropping by the day, it is a race against time.

Professor Costa Rego says the reservoir water will become untreatable by March and could harm residents who cannot afford bottled water.

Helder Barbalho, Temer’s minister in charge of the project, says the government is confident the water will arrive on schedule.

‘We have to deliver the water by April at all costs,’ he said.

Climate change has worsened the droughts in Brazil’s northeast over the last 30 years, according to Eduardo Martins, head of Funceme, Ceara state’s meteorological agency.

Rainfall has decreased and temperatures have risen, increasing demand for agricultural irrigation just as water supplies fell and evaporation accelerated.

Costa Rego blames lack of planning by Brazil’s governments for persistent and repeated water crises, shocking for a country that boasts the biggest fresh water reserves on the planet.

The reservoir supplying São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and a metropolitan region of 20 million people, nearly dried up in 2015. The capital, Brasilia, resorted to rationing this year.