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Dry Amazon, dry world?

Richard Black | 14:13 UK time, Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Whisper this in case you're near any BBC managers looking to cut costs - just occasionally this job gives you experiences so special that, to be honest, you would have paid for them willingly.

Tap with water dropletA little over two years ago I had one of those experiences: a week in the Amazon making a BBC World Service radio documentary about sustainable forestry - what it means in the Brazilian context, how it's being implemented, and whether it can work.

It's a part of the world I hadn't visited before and, as usual in these situations, some of the people you meet are as special as the places you see - a cousin of the noted activist Chico Mendes, for example, who makes a living by collecting Brazil nuts and other things that the forest provides.

We met a female timber magnate who'd come from a family of dodgy loggers but who was trying to "go straight", a state premier who'd established a nursery growing saplings of Amazonian trees for replanting, and environmental campaigners passionate about making forestry sustainable but equally adamant that their state produced the best beef in the world (and it really was good).

Perhaps the least expected encounter was with a scientist from the US, Foster Brown. He's worked in the region for many years now and was writing a report on the wildfires that sprang up in unusually large numbers in 2005. The fires coincided with a period of very low rainfall in Acre province - drought, in fact, with rain virtually absent for months.

I pinched myself to remember where I was - in the middle of the Amazon basin, a region that's a byword for the verdant ebullience of nature, in something that's called, let us remember, rainforest.

Acre has had dry seasons quite regularly in fact, many of them related to the El Nino/La Nina cycle in the Pacific Ocean some 800km (500 miles) away. What made this one different was that, for the first time in living memory, villagers complained of not being able to get enough water.

Two things had changed from previous dry periods. More and more people were living in the region, partly as a result of the local population growing and partly because of the government's decades-old policy of "settling" the Amazon and making the region economically productive.

Sawmill in Amazon regionThe expanding population in turn meant more mouths thirsty for water, more land cleared of its natural water-conserving vegetation for cattle-ranching, more water consumption by that cattle, and consequently a landscape through which fire could travel more rapidly and easily.

The result in 2005 [pdf link] was an estimated $50m of direct economic losses and a state of emergency declared in three provinces.

It struck me that here in the Amazon we had a microcosm of the factors that mean more and more societies around the world are having to think about water harder that they've had to before.

The issue isn't population growth or economic development or climatic factors - it's all of them.

Some regions and some societies are more capable of adaptation than others, of course; and while economic development can cause shortages, it can also be a way to overcome shortages.

But who should own water, and how should it be managed to make sure that economic progress leads to cleaner and more reliable supplies rather than depletion?

Certainly, water is far too complex a topic for a single blog post. So it's lucky that - as if by magic - I can refer you to a series of articles that Clare Davidson, a colleague who covers business affairs for the BBC website, and I have written and commissioned.

We'll be rolling them out over the next two weeks - here's the first - and I'd be most interested at any stage to chat here about the issues raised.


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