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In Brazil, 20 million people may not have enough water

The frame of a car sits on cracked earth at the bottom of the Atibainha Dam, part of the Cantareira System responsible for providing water to the Sao Paulo metropolitan area in Brazil. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
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Southeastern Brazil is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades. The country’s water supply has almost run dry. Satellite images released by NASA’s Earth Observatory show Brazil’s reservoirs reduced to as little as 3 percent of their capacity, prompting water restrictions throughout the region.

“What are we supposed to do without water?” Flávia de Souza Carvalho, a housewife from São Paulo, told Vice News. “We can’t shower, wash dishes, do laundry. I have a sink full of dishes because there’s no water coming out of the tap.”

Of the 44 million residents in the state of Sao Paulo, at least 14 million have been affected by shortages.

“The climate of the region is seasonal, with a rainy summer and a dry winter, and the drought has extended through the current dry season and the past rainy season,” Marcos Heil Costa, a climate scientist at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, told NASA’s Earth Observatory. ” … To make things worse, the onset of the rainy season — which usually happens in late September or early October — has not happened yet.”

The total rainfall in the region this year is down 12 to 16 inches below normal, which has hurt the region’s key crops.

A group of scientists and meteorologists believes the lack of rain is not only due to global warming, but destruction of the rain forest. “Humidity that comes from the Amazon in the form of vapor clouds — what we call ‘flying rivers’ — has dropped dramatically, contributing to this devastating situation we are living today,” Antonio Nobre, a leading climate scientist at Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, told Reuters.

Deforestation increased by 29 percent in recent years and the Amazon lost 2,275 square miles, according to a survey reported by Reuters. Scientists believe that because there are fewer trees able to absorb water from the ocean, less moisture is released into the air.  The Amazon evaporates 20 billion tons of vapor everyday. To put this into perspective: One square mile of ocean evaporates one liter per day while one large tree in the Amazon can evaporate up to 300 liters per day.

The NASA images below show the difference of one year, from August 2013, right, to August 2014. The landscape clearly shows the change in water level. NASA wrote: “Even in 2013, the reservoir appeared to be surrounded by a low-water ‘bathtub ring.’ The water is also a lighter blue-green in 2014 because it is shallower, with sediment and the lake bottom altering the color of the water surface. Note that in the two months since the 2014 Landsat image (top) was acquired, reservoirs continued shrinking from roughly 12 percent capacity to 4 percent.”

(Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

“If the drought continues, residents will face more dramatic water shortages in the short term,” Vicente Andreu, president of Brazil’s National Water Agency, warned reporters last week. With the Cantareira running so low, the state has gotten desperate. Sabesp, the state water utility, turned to pumping in extra water underneath the reservoir. The first emergency system pumped in an extra 10.6 billion gallons, and the second 28 billion gallons, as reported by VICE News. The state will also deliver 20 tanker trucks of water, one months worth of emergency supply to the hardest hit city of Itu. Andreu, also said: “If it doesn’t rain we run the risk that the region will have a collapse like we’ve never seen before.”