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April 24, 2012

Drought in Northeastern Brazil Worst in Decades

There has been plenty of press coverage of the drought in southern Brazil this growing season and its impact on the soybean and corn crops in the region, but what has gone basically unnoticed is an even more severe drought in northeastern Brazil. Northeastern Brazil is a semi-arid region that frequently is impacted by droughts, but this growing season it has been even dryer than normal. Many regions have gone nearly a year without rain and there is even less chances of rainfall going forward into the dry season.

Parts of the region are in the midst of the worst drought in 30 to 50 years. The smaller rivers and streams are dry, the wells are dry, the cisterns are dry, and some of the local reservoirs are down to 10% of their capacity. Local authorities have been forced to haul water to rural residents in order to keep people and animals alive. As local sources of water disappear, some local municipalities have been forced to retrieve their water as far as 60-70 kilometers away, which slows the deliveries and drives up the cost of the water.

Rural residents in the region are mainly subsistent farmers raising cattle, goats, corn, dry beans and manioc root. Unfortunately, they have not been able to plant any of their crops this year and many are relying on monthly food baskets from the government. The pasture grasses have all died and the cattle are being kept alive by feeding them sisal or even potatoes. In one municipality where the dairy herds normally produce 60,000 liters of milk per day, the milk production has fallen to just 10,000 liters per day.

Local authorities place part of the blame for this bleak condition on the clearing of much or all of the native caatinga vegetation for pastures. They feel that the lack of vegetation has resulted in less rainfall and they are using the government to start a program of reforestation using native species.

Many rural residents have either fled the region or sent their children to live with relatives outside the drought area or even the state. If rainfall does not materialize soon, the situation will worsen quickly.