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Which development model can help Brazil overcome social problems and preserve the environment?


Climate Change, Natural Resources and Security in Brazil

Brazil is a country of contrasts. While assuming the  position as the 7th biggest economy in the world, the country has not been able to leave the group of countries with biggest income concentration and inequality in the world. It is celebrated as one of the most promising developing countries, but is still unable to overcome historical and structural issues related to education, health, housing, discrimination, and corruption, among others. And although a great abundance of natural resources and biodiversity is concentrated in the country, it faces huge difficulties in its attempts to preserve such riches, which are diminishing year after year.

This module presents four key issues concerning Brazilian reality that connect climate change, natural resources and security: i) water and sanitation; ii) food security; iii) energy and iv) forests. Addressing these challenges is crucial so that we can determine which development model will best help us to overcome social problems, prevent conflict and avoid political instability, without giving up on environmental preservation.

Water and sanitation 

Water is a limited resource, and we all know the importance of being smart about the way we consume the fresh water we have available. Of all water in the world, only 2.5 percent is fresh water, and only 0.3 percent is available in rivers and lakes and considered ready for consumption. Brazil has an enormous abundance of water within its territory: 12 percent of all the fresh water available in the world’s rivers and lakes is located in our country.

Both natural processes and human activities affect the quantity and quality of water available. Climatic variations, deforestation, land use, the volume of water used for irrigation and pollution are examples of factors that directly affect the availability of drinking water. At the same time, low availability of drinking water is also related to issues such as the uncontrolled growth of urban centres and a lack of sanitation infrastructure, and is another mark of social inequality since lower-income people are those most affected. Accordingly, water scarcity can be a trigger for social conflict and political instability when it leads to extreme situations.

The way we deal with water is also directly linked to health issues. Internationally, it is estimated that 70 percent of admissions in the public health system are related to waterborne diseases. When we combine this information with the fact that more than half of the population does not have sewerage systems and 80 percent of the waste generated in Brazil is dumped directly into rivers without any treatment, it is clear that we need to use water more appropriately and to improve the sanitation infrastructure.

Climate change impacts will also cause changes in the water cycle that will profoundly affect ecosystems. In Brazil, droughts are expected to worsen in the Northeast and higher temperatures will also mean less water will be available in the South, Midwest and Southeast. The effects will impact the entire population, leading to a reduction in biodiversity and negatively affecting agriculture and the economy.

Child pumping water in the town of Barro Duro, Maranhão.

 Use of fresh water

World Map with countries resized according to the use of fresh water. The images show the World Map distorted to indicate the availability and use of fresh water in each country. They clearly point out the inequities in water distribution and consumption, as well as the abundance of water resources in Brazil.

 Availability of fresh water

World Map with countries resized according to the availability of fresh water.

Water as a cross-cutting issue

Water is an essential resource and is directly related to several socio-environmental issues. For this reason, the responsible use of water can be considered a cross-cutting issue in the debate on sustainable development.

There can be no adequate sanitation or good hygienic conditions without access to clean water. Thus, adequate access to water is directly related to health issues and to the minimum conditions for leading a safe life.

Likewise, water is essential for food production. In agriculture, while some face dry seasons that hinder productivity, many also use water irresponsibly and squander large amounts of the resource. Changes in the water cycle caused by global warming are already happening and will only amplify the problems if not prevented.

When we speak of energy in Brazil, its relationship with water is more than evident: 85 percent of the energy supply for our country comes from hydroelectric plants, which use the force of water flowing in rivers to generate electricity.

In the case of forests, the connection with water is also clear: water nourishes the life of the forests, and forests regulate the cycles of rain and reduce water pollution.

The polluted Pinheiros River in the city of São Paulo.

Human development can only exist if civil society agrees on five basic points: equality, diversity, participation, solidarity and liberty.

Herbert José de Souza, also known as Betinho. Sociologist and activist against economic injustice

Food security

The way we produce and consume food in the world is far from ideal. While one in seven people suffers from chronic malnutrition, up to 25 percent of food bought in rich countries is wasted, and in more than half of industrialised countries 50 percent or more of the population is overweight. The world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, but about a billion people still go hungry.

Brazil, in particular, produces 160 million tonnes of food each year, making it the largest producer and 3rd largest exporter in the world. At the same time, it ranks 6th in the number of people suffering from malnutrition, with about 15 million people in this situation.

The issue of food security goes beyond the availability of food for people, and we also see evidence that food production is connected to various socio-environmental issues. Raising cattle for slaughter, for example, is directly related to deforestation of the land where the cattle will be raised, and in Brazil – the second largest producer of beef in the world after the USA – it is one of the main factors behind deforestation. When talking about agriculture, about 70 percent of fresh water used globally goes to irrigation, especially for grain coming from agribusiness, and conserving 20 percent of this water could supply the entire planet‘s population.

It is very likely that climate change will expand the drought in northeast Brazil, mainly impacting the availability of food for local people. Experts predict that this will accelerate the migration from the Northeast to the Southeast, and also from rural areas to big cities. The fact that the region most vulnerable to climate change is also the country‘s poorest is alarming. The spread of droughts and internal migration within the country due to climate change may also generate instability and conflicts related to land rights and access to resources.

Small-scale farmer in the town of Serrinha, Bahia.


The issue of energy production and distribution is a major challenge we face in the twenty-first century and is directly connected to climate change. As shown in the panel dedicated solely to the topic of energy in this exhibition, we have two goals to achieve: to ensure electricity for all in a world where 1.6 billion people still lack access to electricity networks, and to move towards a renewable energy model for our energy grid that will gradually eliminate the negative effects and risks of fossil fuels, nuclear power and hydropower.

It is said that Brazil is the country with the world’s cleanest energy grid – in 2009, 85 percent of the country’s domestic supply of electricity came from hydroelectric plants. However, although it does not emit gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming, hydropower plants involve serious social and environmental impacts, destroying ecosystems with floods caused by their construction and leading to the displacement of indigenous peoples and traditional communities living around the rivers where they are built.

It is precisely such impacts that generate controversies like the one involving the construction of Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in Brazil.

At the same time, Brazil has not yet seen an adequate level of investment in truly sustainable energy sources. We have observed an increase in the use of natural gas and biomass, which emit gases that contribute to climate change, as well as discussions on increasing the use of nuclear energy, which carries risks already seen in disasters such as the one in Fukushima, Japan. Meanwhile, investments in wind energy and photovoltaic panels for solar energy, truly sustainable sources with great potential for growth in the country, are still far from ideal.

Brazil, Paraguay, 2000: Itaipú hydroelectric plant on the Paraná River.

The challenge of the (un)sustainable cities

In 2007, for the first time the number of people living in urban areas surpassed the rural population in the world. In Brazil, 84 percent of the population already lives in urban areas.  

However, what we see today is that the way cities are built and planned does not take into account criteria that ensure social and environmental sustainability. The consumption of resources such as water, energy and food is high, and there is just as much reason for concern about waste throughout the supply and distribution chain and among consumers themselves.

View of the city of São Paulo at night.

For many people there is a connection between urbanisation and development, but what we see is that the processes of urbanisation have created a separation from concerns related to environmental issues. Simultaneously, poorly planned urban growth leads many people to live in appalling conditions, suffering, for example, from a lack of proper sanitation and poor-quality housing and transportation – which are also associated with environmental, health, social and political problems.

Slum in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

At first, I thought I was fighting to save the rubber trees; later, I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon Rainforest. Now, I realise that I was fighting for humanity.

Chico Mendes Environmental and social activist, rubber tappe


Forests play an essential role in maintaining life and balance in ecosystems. They preserve biodiversity, regulate rainfall, fertilize the soil, reduce erosion and landslides, reduce river pollution, play a very important role in absorbing carbon dioxide and are home to numerous species, indigenous peoples and traditional communities. Influencing the climate and the availability of various natural resources, the importance of forests goes far beyond the regions where they are located, affecting the entire society. Because of this importance, their destruction may contribute to countless short-term and long-term conflicts.

Forests play a key role in the economy. If preserved and used in a sustainable way, their resources can contribute greatly to economic development. It is estimated that in the last hundred years the world has lost 40 percent of its forests – recognizing the importance of preventing forests from being used in an unsustainable way, many countries (many having already undergone serious deforestation problems) have specific laws to deal with the subject.

Brazil has a historical problem with respect to deforestation. Although deforestation has been declining recently, it is estimated that the country loses 6,400 km2 of the Amazon rainforest and 457 km2 of the Atlantic rainforest each year. Both producers and consumers still show little concern about how the wood is being extracted and used, and monitoring of illegal logging continues to be ineffective.

Moreover, there is a strong connection between forests, food production and climate change. Burning forests to clear land in areas that will later be used for agriculture and livestock farming accounts for 75 percent of carbon emissions in the country, contributing heavily to climate change. It is also important to note that Brazil does not need to clear more land in order to produce more food: land use here is very inefficient, and hundreds of millions of hectares with productive potential are underused, degraded or abandoned.

Fire in the Amazon Rainforest.


Climate change: a driver of social conflict?

Problems related to energy, forests, food security, water and sanitation have multiple connections to each other, can be very aggravated by climate change and are likely to be related to more and more conflicts if global warming increases, as we have seen in various countries around the world.

Food production in Brazil is strongly associated with deforestation (used to expand the land devoted to agriculture), and burning for deforestation is the main factor behind emissions of greenhouse gases in Brazil. If it continues to increase, global warming will lead to environmental impacts that will hamper food production, leading to increases in prices that affect mainly the poor and causing great hardship for small farmers and families whose income or livelihood depends on agriculture. With more people going hungry, the possibility of social unrest certainly increases.

Adequate access to water is also essential for food production, as well as for individual consumption and sanitation. Adequate living conditions for everyone are essential for a healthy and stable society and depend on access to clean water. Changes in the water cycle caused by climate change and deforestation may seriously affect the quality of life of large numbers of people.

When talking about energy, it should be noted that power generation is directly linked to global warming, as mentioned elsewhere in this exhibition module. If we keep using more and more fossil fuels that emit gases that contribute to global warming, such as oil and coal, the planet's temperature will continue rising and the natural effects arising from this will place all the inhabitants of the planet at risk.

Approaches for addressing the challenges 

It is essential to sustainably manage natural resources, especially given the pressures brought about by global trends related to urbanisation, population growth and climate change.

Natural resources are directly connected to an adequate water supply and sanitation, energy supply and food security.

In the current scenario, it is necessary to guarantee:

  • The preservation of forests and natural ecosystems
  • An adequate water supply and adequate sanitation systems for everyone
  • Efficient food production, adequate distribution and waste management throughout the production cycle
  • Investment in accessible and adequate renewable energy sources to ensure a clean energy grid and universal coverage
  • The inclusion of sustainable development education in our national curricula
  • Poverty eradication and acceleration of socio-economic inclusion at the bottom of the pyramid
  • Investments to sustain ecosystem services
  • Resilient and efficient urban services for sustainable urban environments
  • Integrated approaches to policy-making and the provision of public services
  • Governance and citizen participation
Approaches for adressing the challanges