The Ecologist

A dry branch of the Atibainha reservoir, part of the Cantareira system of reservoirs that serves Sao Paulo, 26th February 2015. Photo: Clairex via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
A dry branch of the Atibainha reservoir, part of the Cantareira system of reservoirs that serves Sao Paulo, 26th February 2015. Photo: Clairex via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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Brazil's ravaged forests are taking their revenge

Robert Hunziker

2nd March 2015

Thanks to massive deforestation along Brazil's Atlantic coast and the Amazon, São Paulo's reservoirs are at just 6% of their capacity and water rationing is in place. But this is just the beginning of a long term drying process that could be recreated around the world as forests are laid waste and hydrology disrupted.

Remarkably, there is a quadrangle of land in South America that should be desert. It's on line with the deserts, but it is not a desert. It's the Amazon rainforest.

Imagine this scenario: "The following is a Public Service Announcement by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water, July 4, 2015:

"Because of low water levels in state reservoirs, the Division of Water proclaims a statewide water-rationing program. Starting next month, on August 1st 2015, water service will turn off at 1:00 pm on a daily basis for an indeterminate period of time. Service will return the following morning."

Now, imagine a city the size of the State of New York with its 20 million people subjected to the same water-rationing plan. As it happens, São Paulo, de facto capital city of Brazil, home to 20 million, is such a city. The water is turned off every day at 1:00pm, as reported by Donna Bowater, The Telegraph's São Paulo correspondent, a week ago.

Brazil contains an estimated 12% of the world's fresh water, but São Paulo is running dry. Fatally, the city's Cantareira Water Reservoir (water resource for 6.2 million of the city's 20 million) is down to 6% of capacity! The city's other reservoirs are also dangerously low.

Perilously, São Paulo's days of water supply are numbered.

What's the problem?

Deforestation, the nearly complete disappearance of the Atlantic Forest and continuing deforestation of the Amazon, that's the problem. Forests have an innate ability to import moisture and to cool down and to favor rain, which is what makes 'regional climates' so unique.

According to Dr. Antonio Nobre, researcher in the government's space institute's Earth System Science Centre, and Chief Science Advisor, National Institute for Research in the Amazon (reported by the Guardian's Jonathan Watts last October):

"Vegetation-climate equilibrium is teetering on the brink of the abyss ... Studies more than 20 years ago predicted what is happening with lowering rainfall. Amazon deforestation is altering climate. It is no longer about models. It is about observation. The connection with the event in São Paulo is important because finally people are paying attention."

Or as Wyre Davies, the BBC's Rio de Janeiro correspondent reported from São Paulo last November: "There is a hot dry air mass sitting down here like an elephant and nothing can move it ... If deforestation in the Amazon continues, São Paulo will probably dry up."

Deforestation alters the climate - and not just via CO2 emissions!

São Paulo is Brazil's richest state as well as its principal economic region. Sorrowfully, it may 'dry up'. It could really truly happen because it's already mostly there, right now, as of today. Where will its 20 million inhabitants go? Nobody knows!

The Atlantic Forest stretches along the eastern coastline of the country. A few hundred years ago, the forest was twice the size of Texas. Today, it is maybe 15% of its former self and what remains is highly fragmented. The forest harbors 5% of the world's vertebrates and 8% of Earth's plants.

Illegal logging, land conversion to pasture, and expansion of urban areas have put extreme stress on the Atlantic Forest. The same holds true for the giant Amazon rainforest.

Brazil holds one-third of the world's remaining rainforests. In the past, deforestation was the result of poor subsistence farmers, but times change, today, large landowners and corporate interests have cleared the rainforest at an unprecedented rate. At the current rate, the Amazon rainforest will be further reduced by 40% by 2030.

Rainforests are the oldest ecosystem on earth and arguably one of the most critical resources for sustainability of life, dubbed 'the lungs of the planet'.

In this month's National Geographic magazine, Scott Wallace summarizes the plight of rainforests: "In the time it takes to read this article, an area of Brazil's rainforest larger than 200 football fields will have been destroyed. The market forces of globalization are invading the Amazon."

Yes, within 20 minutes, only 20, the Amazon rainforest loses the equivalent of 200 football fields. Americans connect with football. It is one of the biggest revenue-producing sports in history. And, that's not all; football fields provide a good descriptive tool of dimensions.

In fact, 200 football fields are equivalent to the space required for 1,000 stand alone single-family homes, which means the Amazon rainforest loses equivalent to 72,000 stand alone single-family homes, or a small city, per day, everyday, gone forever. That's a lot of rainforest gone day-in day-out, which ironically provides timber for building houses, but, in point of fact, most of it is burned away. Poof it's gone, big puffs of smoke into the atmosphere.

"During the past 40 years, close to 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down-more than in all the previous 450 years since European colonization began", Wallace continues. "Scientists fear that an additional 20 percent of the trees will be lost over the next two decades into the atmosphere.

"If that happens, the forest's ecology will begin to unravel. In fact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the moisture it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die."

Editor's note: in fact, it maybe far worse than that - in the Amazon interior, new findings published today on The Ecologist - 'Without its rainforest, the Amazon will turn to desert' - suggest that 99% of the rain is generated by the forest itself.

Rainforests are the world's most valuable natural resource

Nature at work:

  1. The Amazon produces half of its own rainfall and most of the rain south of the Amazon and east of the Andes,
  2. rainforests sequester carbon by holding and absorbing carbon dioxide, thus, controlling global warming as it actually cleanses the atmosphere.
  3. rainforests maintain remarkable panoply of life with species not found anywhere else and provide medicinal products, like cancer treatment, and
  4. these spectacular forests produce 20% of the planet's oxygen, every 5th breath murmurs "thank you rainforests."

Rainforests cover less than 2% of Earth's total surface area but are home to 50% of the plants and animals. That's a lot of 'bang for the buck'. Moreover, critical for survival, the rainforests act as the world's thermostat by regulating temperatures and weather patterns, and they are absolutely necessary in maintaining Earth's supply of drinking and fresh water.

For confirmation of the significance of that necessity, ask the residents of São Paulo.

As for the size of the world's rainforests, "the original untouched resource of six million square miles of rainforests" has already been chopped down by 60%. Only 2.4 million square miles remains today.

Regrettably, according to Watts's Guardian article: "Forest clearance has accelerated under Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff [since 2011] after efforts to protect the Amazon were weakened ... satellite data indicated a 190% surge in deforestation in August and September [2014]."

Is the problem bigger than solutions?

"A paradox of chance", claims Dr. Antonio Nobre: "Remarkably, there is a quadrangle of land in South America that should be desert. It's on line with the deserts, but it is not a desert. It's the Amazon rainforest."

Based upon studies of the Amazon's impact on climate, Dr. Antonio Nobre offers a solution to climate change / global warming, Rebuild Forests, yes, Rebuild'em! Here's what he had to say in a TEDx talk back in 2010:

"We can save planet Earth. I'm not talking about only the Amazon. The Amazon teaches us a lesson on how pristine nature works ... We can save other areas, including deserts, if we could establish forests in those areas, we can reverse climate change, including global warming."

For example, fighting back, China is building a giant green wall, a tree belt, hoping to stop the Kubuqi Desert from spreading east along the front line of the huge Chinese Dust Bowl, the world's largest dust bowl.

Fifty years ago, portions of this same eastern desert area were grasslands, growing crops, raising cattle and sheep. Today, windstorms from the Kubuqi send plumes all the way across the Pacific to the US West Coast.

Ergo, proof positive people do not need to stand by idly twiddling thumbs, watching human-caused climate change ravage countryside. Things can be done!

However, as for China, it may already be too late. In August 2013 Lester R. Brown wrote in the New York Times:

"Whereas the United States has 8 million sheep and goats, China has 298 million. Concentrated in the western and northern provinces, sheep and goats are destroying the land's protective vegetation. The wind then does the rest, removing the soil and converting productive rangeland into desert. Northwestern China is on the verge of a massive ecological meltdown.

"The fallout from the dust storms is social as well as economic. Millions of rural Chinese may be uprooted and forced to migrate eastward as the drifting sand covers their land. Expanding deserts are driving villagers from their homes in Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia provinces. An Asian Development Bank assessment of desertification in Gansu Province reports that 4,000 villages risk being overrun by drifting sands."

Thus, the most provocative question surrounding the global warming issue is: When is the problem bigger than solutions?

The global warming / climate change issue is much, much deeper and considerably more robust than this short essay depicts. It is a gargantuan monster that is likely already out of control with CO2 in the atmosphere at levels flashing warning signals going back hundreds of thousands of years, frightening real scientists but not enough to frighten the US Congress into instituting a nationwide renewables initiative. In fact, Congress is stiff and lifeless.

As it goes, the overriding climate change quandary consists of

  1. 'fossil fuels ruling the world'
  2. COP's (Conference of Parties aka; UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) ineffective endless meetings, ho-hum; and
  3. frankly, most of the people in the world don't give a damn. End of story.

Meanwhile, with deforestation in the Amazon once again accelerating, hapless São Paulo may morph into a real life version of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Warner Bros. 1981) - a dusty, dirty vision of the future where resources are hard to find and decent people turn nasty as desperate marauding groups battle for survival in the desert.

Maybe that'll wake people up!



Also on The Ecologist:

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

This article was originally published by CounterPunch.


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