Facilitating a Proactive Drought Management and Policy Shift: Recent Lessons from Northeast Brazil

Droughts and Their Management in Brazil

Brazilians have a long history of living with harsh conditions in the Northeast.[1] The majority of the Northeast is characterized as the sertao, or the semiarid region that is defined by its long, almost rainless, dry season of several months. The people of Northeast Brazil have managed over the years to cope with these conditions, including through the introduction of water infrastructure projects and the advent of institutions responsible for planning the socioeconomic development of the region. The improvements in supply expansion to address water needs and support to farmers have helped the region progress over the decades. However, when extreme droughts hit the Northeast, structural solutions, while necessary, are often insufficient to withstand these multiyear periods of below-average rainfall.

Since 2012, and continuing through early 2017, the semiarid Northeast has been suffering through an intensive prolonged drought. Reservoirs are at historically low levels, and even if rainfall improves throughout 2017, hydraulic systems will require several additional years to recover to full capacity. The systems that have remained resilient over the last 5 years will not remain operational for an additional dry year, leading to the likely collapse of water supply in small cities and increases in already severe water rationing in state capital cities across the Northeast (eight of the nine capital cities have been historically buffered from the direct impacts of drought because of their location along the more rain-abundant Atlantic coast in the Northeast region). This has threatened the ability of society to maintain adequate drinking water supplies and water for other uses, such as irrigation, hydropower, industrial production, and environmental goods and services. The impacts of prolonged droughts are often concentrated in the rural poor communities living in this semiarid region. Ultimately, these impacts threaten the considerable gains in terms of economic, social, and human development that the region has experienced in the past several decades and place many communities at risk of slipping back into extreme poverty. Figure 21.1 shows the extent of the drought in one Northeast state, Ceara.

Brazil, like many nations, has invested heavily in emergency actions to mitigate the economic losses from prolonged periods of droughts as they unfold. Examples include but are not limited to increased emergency lines of credit, renegotiation of agricultural debts, expansion of social support programs such as Bolsa Estiagem and Garantia-Safra (cash transfer programs to poor families and farmers), and Opera^ao Carro Pipa (water truck deliveries of emergency drinking water to rural communities).

Gaining access to many of these programs and resources relies on the municipalities declaring a situation of emergency or a state of public calamity, loosely defined as an intense and serious shift of the normal conditions


Monthly average rainfall and rainfall distribution (January-December) for Ceara state in Northeast Brazil, from 2007 to late 2016. Wet years are depicted in blue, dry years in red. The average year in terms of distribution and amount is located at the far right of the figure in gray. (Courtesy of FUNCEME, Fortaleza, Brazil.) that affects the locale's response capacity. The state and federal governments then verify and provide access to drought-emergency resources and programs. However, this declaration and assistance process does not involve a systematic procedure for objectively defining droughts and what should constitute an emergency or public calamity situation. Without a specific set of scientifically informed indicators or criteria on which to base the declaration, drought management has been historically reactive to the emergency situation occurring on the ground, and subsequent relief measures are often slow, inefficiently targeted, and subject to political capture and corruption.

The recent drought in the Northeast spurred an intense debate within the country to improve drought policy and management. In recognition of both the need to move away from the crisis management of droughts and the opportunity presented by the current drought and water scarcity situations to make lasting progress, the Ministry of National Integration (MI) in 2013 requested analytical, advisory, and convening services from the World Bank (Bank) to help it in its endeavor to shift its traditional crisis management of droughts to a more prepared and risk-based management approach.[2] As a result of MI's request, the Bank developed the drought preparedness and climate resilience program (Program) to assist in this endeavor, which was implemented between 2013 and 2016.

The main objective of the Program was to help stakeholders in Brazil (both at the national and state levels, and more specifically in the Northeast region) develop and institutionalize proactive approaches to drought events, with an ancillary benefit of developing tools, frameworks, processes, and exchange platforms from which other countries and sectors/regions could learn and eventually foster innovation around this topic.

This chapter describes the recent advances in drought policy and management in Brazil that were supported by the Program over the past 3% years, the main results, and the anticipated next steps. A more complete account of these efforts, as told through the various perspectives of some of the key stakeholders involved, is detailed in De Nys et al. (2016a) (English version) and De Nys et al. (2016b) (Portuguese version).

  • [1] The Northeast is a very large area of 1,561,177 km2 that consists of nine states: Maranhao,Piaui, Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Bahia (fromnorth to south).
  • [2] This request paralleled activities that were occurring on the international stage for improving drought resilience, most notably the High-level Meeting on National Drought Policy(HMNDP), in Geneva, Switzerland, in March 2013. At the HMNDP, Brazil declared its commitment to discuss and debate how to design, coordinate, and integrate comprehensive policy on drought planning and management in order to reduce impacts and increase resilienceto future droughts and climate change. In December 2013 (in partnership with this program),Brazil and the MI also hosted a follow-up international workshop for the HMNDP process,which gathered over one dozen countries to build capacity for developing national droughtpolicies across the Latin America and Caribbean region. By the end of 2013, MI's endeavor toshift the drought paradigm in Brazil was well underway.
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