Mad Max is here

Feature story - 14 May, 2015
We went on an expedition to see up close — and from above, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) — the real situation of the main reservoirs of the south-eastern Brazil. What we saw shows that the worst of the water crisis is yet to come.

Greenpeace activists hold a banner that reads: "Without Forests, There's No Water" © GreenpeaceGreenpeace activists hold a banner that reads: "Without Forests, There's No Water" © Greenpeace

Stepping out onto the "craquelure" bottom of a bone dry reservoir gives one a sinking feeling. Actually, the realization that we were not on the set of a post-apocalyptic film, like "Mad Max", but rather in the middle of an enormous reservoir that until just recently supplied millions of people with water, is enough to send anyone into despair. We were at the Serra Azul reservoir, in Minas Gerais, one of the main parts of the Paraopeba System, which ensures – or ensured – water for most of Greater Belo Horizonte and its 5.7 million inhabitants. Throughout the entire Paraopeba water basin, only 12% of the native forest remains. "Without vegetation on its banks, the reservoirs have a much more difficult time holding water since they suffer from erosion, pollution and silting," said Cristiane Mazzetti, a member of the Greenpeace Forest Campaign. "It's high time that our political leaders understood that, without the forest, there is no water."

The hot sun makes the thousands of cracks in the soil even more dramatic. After decades of being submerged, a bridge surfaces in the middle of the reservoir. The water that is left is concentrated at the bottom of the river channel. Way down at the bottom. At the moment, at the end of the rainy season in 2015, the Serra Azul is at around 9.10% of its capacity. In 2014, the average for the reservoir for the month of March was 44.3%. In other words, we are recording the lowest level in history for this reservoir for this time of the year. Our throats parched, we realized that we were witnessing an environmental collapse of enormous proportions.

The visit to the Serra Azul reservoir was the last stop on a six-day expedition to see some of the main reservoirs in Brazil's south-eastern region. Completed by Greenpeace at the beginning of April in partnership with the monitoring company Terra Sense, the objective of the expedition was to launch UAVs from different points along the reservoirs to record the level of water and the soil use of the surrounding areas. In all we traveled a thousand kilometers. We walked up hills, entered thickets, swampy plains and remote trails to access points that had been previously mapped as favourable for launching the UAV.

UAVs, with their ability to capture aerial images precisely and quickly, make them an agile technological tool for research and other purposes. Without flying over any urban areas, our expedition was able to conduct 14 flights, with over four hours in the air, mapping 607 hectares in and around three reservoirs. Our efforts resulted in 668 photographs of the reservoirs and the surrounding area. When our expedition set off, we knew we would be the first to use UAV technology to monitor the state of reservoirs in Brazil. What we did not know was what we would witness with our own eyes.

We found the Paraibuna reservoir, in Vale do Paraíba do Sul, at less than 5% of its capacity. This is at the end of the rainy season. In other words, it's not going to get any better. Just the opposite, the outlook for this year is frightening. During this same period last year (the beginning of April 2014), the Paraibuna was at 40% of its capacity. The Paraibuna, one of the most important for a system that supplies over eight million people in Rio de Janeiro, has less than 13% of the original forest in its water basin. Only 26% of its Permanent Preservation Areas, including hilltops and riversides, have been preserved. What one finds there is a lot of barren hillsides, pastures, silted riverbanks and, primarily in the region of the sources of the Paraibuna, in the upper Serra do Mar, rivers and springs that have run dry.

"Son, you see my cattle grazing over there? It was all water less than two years ago. Suddenly everything dried out," recalled Paulo Ribeiro da Silva, a milk producer who lives near the reservoir. Mr. da Silva explains that he grew up in the region and has never seen the water surface shrink this much. "If the government helped us to maintain the riverside forests and protect the springs, the situation would be different," he said. Even milk producers know that without the forest, there is no water.

A map of the Brazilian south-east

From the Paraíba do Sul basin the expedition traveled to the region that has become emblematic of the water crisis that affects the entire Brazilian south-east: the Cantareira System, the most important supply system for the largest metropolis in South America. Since mid-2014 pumping water from the so-called "dead volume," the Cantareira is a system of interlinked reservoirs that supply over five million people in Greater São Paulo. Or should we say supplied, since the state government has transferred part of that previously serviced by the Cantareira to other reservoirs in the wake of its collapse. From the edge of the reservoir or the top of the hills, we observed the Cantareira which is under capacity by 11% (without counting the "dead volume," which entered into use in May 2014). That's right, the level of the Cantareira stands at -11%. A year ago, this figure was around 14%.

We launched the UAV from three different points at the Jaguari-Jacareí reservoir. For those who are concerned about the future of São Paulo, a warning: the images captured from above are dire. Only 15% of the forests of the basin are standing. Of the rivers that make up the basin, 76.5% are without their riparian forests. If the vegetation in the basin contributes to the water cycle on a regional scale and the riparian forests, in turn, protect rivers and springs from impacts like erosion and silting, our system is seriously degraded. "The economy of the region is already feeling the effects of the depletion of the reservoirs," said Marcelo Delduque, owner of the farm Fazenda Serrinha, located along the edge of the Jaguari-Jacareí. "A lot of people who depended on tourism and leisure activities have lost their jobs."

However, the consequences of the water crisis go far beyond the economy. The collapse of the main reservoirs that supply the major cities of the south-east compromise the sustainability of the region, affecting the health, quality of life and survival of its population. The expedition increased the awareness that the south-east and other Brazilian regions have worked themselves into a corner and there is no magic solution. A fundamental step forward would be to stop deforestation now. "And begin to reforest, because this is the only way to recover the ability of the water basins to produce and store water," said Cristiane Mazzetti.

The future of millions of Brazilians depends on the recuperation of these reservoirs and on all of us to establish a new relationship with water resources and the forests. On a daily basis the Amazon releases 20 billion tons of water vapor into the atmosphere, forming flying rivers that flow to the south, south-east and mid-west regions of Brazil, irrigating fields and filling reservoirs. By continuing to deforest the Amazon and not recuperating the vegetation and the water basins that supply the country's major cities, Brazil is flirting with unprecedented socio-environmental disaster and compromising the future of new generations.

Over 1.1 million Brazilians have formed a movement to end deforestation in Brazil. We want to present the national congress with a bill that will prohibit new deforestation, protecting the forests that remain. You can also join movement by signing the petition for Zero Deforestation.