RIO DE JANEIRO — Northeastern Brazil consists of a strip of lush coastal land and sprawling prairies three times the size of France and as dry as Africa's Sahel Desert. It is struck by a mild drought on average every three years and by a severe one every dozen years.
In fact, severe droughts have been recorded ever since the days of the Portuguese empire. In 1724, a long dry spell caused so much looting that colonial officials appealed to King Jo-o V for help. "The cause of their misery is laziness," the king replied.
During the drought of 1790-1793, one-third of the population of the state of Pernambuco perished. Nearly a hundred years later, during the drought of 1877-1879 - the worst of the 19th century - 500,000 people died. Brazilian Emperor Pedro II was said to be so moved by the high death toll that he vowed to "sell the last of the crown's jewels" to resolve the problem.
In fact, he only built one regional dam. Yet it was the first time a government had ever responded to a northeast drought with a concrete project.
"The problem of the northeast isn't a lack of water," presidential candidate Luiz Incio Lula da Silva told reporters in Cear State last week. "The problem with Brazil is it only remembers the drought when there is a drought."