Brazil's water scarcity is "regular scenario, not emergency" says energy expert
Water scarcity is a "new regular scenario, not an emergency", Munir Soares, an energy expert at research institute Instituto de Energia e Meio Ambiente (IEMA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Tiete river, I count on you for a lifetime" - stirring words from the anthem of Pederneiras city that show the near-sacred status of a waterway that helps power Brazil's entire economy.
Be it generating electricity or transporting crops, the river is key. But acute water shortages have sparked a dispute over who has more right to exploit it - and experts say the government must tackle the issue as shortages grow ever worse.
One of Brazil's key transport corridors for soybeans, corn, fertilizer and other farm products, it was closed for 20 months between 2014-2016 due to drought and the diversion of water for electricity, with an estimated loss of $270 million to shipping companies and 1,600 jobs.
As the waterway in the state of Sao Paulo - the engine of the nation's economy - threatens to close again due to erratic rainfall, experts have urged policymakers to define more clearly who can exploit the river, and when.
Agriculture and agribusiness accounted for about a quarter of Brazil's gross domestic product in 2017, according to farm lobby CNA. The country is the third biggest electricity producer in the Americas, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The law does not clearly define who should enjoy priority access to the river, which is rich in rapids and punctuated by steep falls, in times of water scarcity, he added.
In cases of erratic rainfall, national grid operator ONS requests more water from the river to power hydroelectric dams located nearby - which can prevent barge trains from passing down the waterway, Soares explained.
If the river is to be used primarily for electricity in times of water scarcity, that needs to be made clear by regulators and shipping companies must have other alternatives if they are grounded, Soares said.
"If transportation companies cannot honor their contracts, they will have problems."
Adalberto Tokarski, head of Brazilian government agency Antaq, said transportation companies had filed lawsuits over the 2014-2016 costly waterway closure.
"The law is very clear but it is not respected due to the power of interference of the electric sector. The law does not give supremacy to the electric sector. It guarantees the multiple uses of water and there has to be a balance," Tokarski said.
RACE FOR RESOURCES
In 2014, Brazil was also hosting the World Cup. Sao Paulo, South America's largest city, came critically close to running out of drinking water.
Lower river levels force barge trains to reduce the amount of exports they carry on the waterway, or even prevent them from using the corridor completely, said Raimundo Holanda, head of the National Federation of Waterway Navigation Companies (Fenavega).
In 2017, ANA launched a "crisis room" once shortages were underway, gathering ONS, Antaq and transport representatives to assess navigation conditions and the water levels of dams.
JOBS AT RISK
Located about 200 miles from Sao Paulo, Pederneiras is a strategic waterway hub where cargo is transferred to trains and onward to international markets, said Holanda.
"The Tiete river is not just a river," said Vicente Minguili, mayor of the city known as the "waterway capital".
Alan de Moura Lima, a former logistics officer, is one of the hundreds of workers who lost their jobs when the Tiete-Parana waterway closed in 2014-2016.
"It was tough. A good part of my professional life I spent on this waterway," Lima said by a railway over the Tiete river.
"Every year there is a threat to close the waterway. I did not want to come back because of all this uncertainty."
CONFLICTS IN THE AMAZON
In Porto Velho, capital of the state of Rondonia, navigation firms and energy companies exploiting the Santo Antonio dam - one of Brazil's biggest - clash over the Madeira river.
Leudo Buriti, head of the Society of Ports and Waterways of the state of Rondonia (SOPH), complains about sharp changes in water levels that disrupt navigation - something he says did not happen before the dam was built.
"The changes that occur in the flow of the Madeira river are due to the melting of the Andes and periods of intense rains at the head of the river," the company said.
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