RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Carnival begins in Rio de Janeiro, the city is bracing for possible water shortages as a severe drought that has dried up reservoirs in Brazil's southeast hits the country’s top tourist destination.
Authorities say there is no imminent risk of water supply interruptions. But hotels and restaurants in this oceanfront city are preparing for that possibility as an expected almost one million tourists begin arriving for festivities that officially start this weekend and run until Ash Wednesday, on Feb. 18.
Rio's Hotel Industry Association has asked its members to take more vigorous measures to conserve water, while the city's hotel and restaurant union said it is planning for water scarcity.
Some street carnival parades have canceled the use of water tank trucks that are traditionally used to cool off revelers.
"The governor said there is no risk of water shortages in the short term and Cedae (Rio's water utility) said the city won't run out of water during Carnival, but there is always concern," Antonio Pedro Figueira de Mello, the city's tourism secretary, said in an interview this week.
"The situation is serious and we need to conserve water," he said.
Cedae has ruled out any risk of water cutoffs during Carnival – but the reassurance comes even as two of four key reservoirs that supply the city have reached zero operating capacity.
On Jan. 21, the Paraibuna reservoir, the biggest of four that supply Rio de Janeiro state, dropped to the so-called "dead volume" - at which water is inaccessible - for the first time since it was built in 1978, according to Brazil's Electric System Operator ONS, which manages the country's power plants and tracks reservoir levels.
Five days later, the Santa Branca reservoir also dropped to a historic low. The reservoirs in Rio de Janeiro state provide drinking water and also power hydroelectric plants.
Brazil's southeast region is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years after an unusually dry year has depleted reservoirs that feed the country's most populous cities.
Scientists have linked the worsening drought to continuing Amazon deforestation, which is reducing the amount of condensation that rises from the forest and falls further south as rain.
São Paulo, a megacity of 20 million, is still desperately low on water as the Cantareira system of reservoirs that feed nearly half of the city's population has remained at minimal operating levels since last October.
After months of promises that there would be no cutoffs, authorities have now admitted the severity of the situation.
Sabesp, the water utility in São Paulo, is preparing official rationing measures that could be as drastic as cutting water supply two days out of each seven, Paulo Massato Yoshimoto, metropolitan director at Sabesp, told reporters on Jan. 27. He said that would be a worst-case scenario.
Sabesp said in a statement this week that the company hasn't made a decision yet on whether rationing will be implemented and what supply restrictions will be adopted.
Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported this week that São Paulo city officials are preparing for rationing, such as installing water pumps that would guarantee supply to hospitals while cutting off other users.
Recent summer storms in the Cantareira region have boosted reservoir levels slightly, but meteorologists say the area is expected to receive average or below-average rainfall over the next two months, which is the rainy season in Brazil's southeast.
Starting in April, little rain is expected, leading some scientist to speculate that the Cantareira reservoirs could be completely dry by July.
In Rio, as in São Paulo a few months ago, authorities have blamed the weather and critics say they have been slow to respond to the threat of a water crisis.
Asked if the city runs the risk of water shortages during Carnival, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes told journalists this week that he didn't know and referred them to Cedae, the water utility.
State environment chief Andre Correa acknowledged on Jan. 23 that Rio is suffering the worst water crisis in history, but said the population can rest assured that no rationing measures will be necessary until July.
"The population has at least six months of tranquility" even if Rio continues to receive below-average rainfall, he told reporters at a press conference.
Scientists have a much different view.
"We are headed for imminent collapse," warned Mario Moscatelli, a biologist who has dedicated his career to protecting Rio's rivers, lakes and lagoons.
He said the authorities' lack of urgency in responding to the impending crisis is a reflection of Brazilian society's belief that natural resources will always be abundant.
"We have an energy minister who says that God is Brazilian, and will send us rain, and everything will be ok," Moscatelli, one of Brazil's most activist environmentalists, said in an interview this week.
"That's the kind of thing our authorities are telling the population, when the reality is that we are on the brink of a huge disaster," he said.
He was referring to Mines and Energy Minister Eduardo Braga, who made the comments during a press conference on Jan. 20.
The day before the conference, the federal district and 11 of Brazil’s 26 states suffered power outages as temperatures rose past 40 degrees Celsius in several regions.
Reporting by Adriana Brasileiro; editing by Laurie Goering