Brazil battles drought as world's largest water forum meets

CEILANDIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Diane Pereira had already used up half a large plastic water barrel by 9 a.m. as she cooked rice and beans for the coming lunch crowd as gospel music played quietly in her small, doorless restaurant in Ceilandia, a poor suburb of Brazil’s capital.

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In the face of a government-instituted all-day water cutoff on Wednesday, Pereira said she was doing everything she could to economize, including using plastic cups instead of glass and using less water in the food. If her two barrels run dry, she will have to close up for the day.

“It changes everything,” the 28 year old said. “There’s no water to wash your hands.”

While Pereira and others in her neighborhood will be waiting until midday on Thursday for the Federal District to turn on the water, taps will still be flowing freely in Brasilia at the World Water Forum, the world’s largest water conference.

Water for the area around the once-in-three-years gathering would normally be cut off on Thursday, but the place is exempt from regular rationing this week, because of logistical difficulties, according to Mauricio Luduvice, president of Federal District water authority Caesb.

This week’s conference, which ends on Friday, comes as Brazil is still dealing with prolonged droughts while panels such as “Water Crisis in Brazil” contend with the question of how people in the country richest in fresh water reserves could go thirsty. More than 900 of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities have water emergencies as a result of drought, according to the Ministry of National Integration.

Much of the problem is getting the water where it needs to go, with government officials pointing to strides in delivering water in drought-stricken Brasilia, Sao Paulo and the northeast.

Most notably, a canal carrying water hundreds of kilometers from the Sao Francisco River is now reaching 1 million people in Paraiba state who are experiencing the northeast’s worst drought in a century.

In the Federal District, the main reservoir level is up more than twelve fold thanks largely to new infrastructure and the rotating water rationing every six days will be eliminated this year, Luduvice said.

Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin said his state was an example of how to tackle such a crisis, listing several initiatives.

Many say, however, the government needs to do more. NGOs such as SOS Mata Atlantica are planning to protest in front of Congress on Thursday morning over insufficient government water management.

Beyond public projects to boost supply, said Henrique Chaves, a watershed management professor at University of Brasilia, Brazil needs to further rein in exploding water demand in cities to avoid more drought crises within the decade.

Luduvice said after rationing ends, some reduction in demand will linger thanks to more conscientious usage.

In Ceilandia, car wash owner Roberto Souza has rigged a system of gutters to the corrugated metal roof of his home to feed the 5,500 liter (1,500 gallon) cistern at his adjoining car wash, an improvisation after rationing began.

“I’ll continue this way (after rationing),” he said. “The day rationing comes again, I’ll have this routine all in place.”

Reporting by Jake Spring; Editing by Steve Orlofsky