The biggest disaster you’ve probably never heard of


This is part one of an in-depth series on northeastern Brazil's severe drought.

RECIFE, Brazil — Northeastern Brazil’s two-year drought is written in textures.

The brittle puff of a desiccated cactus. The greasy leather of a cow carcasses’ neck, still stretched out for a drink. And the hot hiss of rain, falling for the first time in two years on a parched bean field: too little, too late.

The drought, Brazil’s worst in decades, is a catastrophe.

In economic terms, it was the fourth-worst natural disaster to hit the planet last year, costlier than even the western United States drought, for a total cost of almost $9 billion, according to insurance analyst Aon Benfield, which researches natural disasters worldwide.

And in much of the region it's ongoing.

Correspondent Will Carless and videographer Jimmy Chalk's reporting route.

Add to that a debilitating water shortage in southeastern Brazil and dry weather is now shaping up to be a major challenge for South America's largest nation, an agricultural powerhouse, that's set to host soccer's World Cup this year and the 2016 Olympics.

Droughts and desertification are also destroying once arable, inhabitable land from North America to Europe to Africa and Asia. Scientists and officials point to the extreme weather patterns as a sign that climate change is here, although some experts insist their region’s case is unconnected to world climate trends.

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff promised last August to increase aid to the northeastern Brazilian Sertao region, whose more than 20 million people make it one of the world's most populated semi-arid zones.

Still, agriculture across much of the Sertao has been decimated. The region has lost more than 26 million tons of crops and millions of cows, goats, sheep and other livestock, estimates the Banco do Nordeste, a regional development bank.

A seven-day road trip by GlobalPost correspondents through the most hard-hit towns of Bahia and Pernambuco states in mid-November offered a window into the human cost of the drought.

On the road, families described losing practically everything. Residents spoke of clinging to their livelihoods by keeping a few choice animals alive, and resorting to grinding up cactuses to feed their livestock.

People are not starving because of the drought.

Brazil’s famous government programs like Bolsa Familia, a monthly cash payment to needy families, are keeping staples like rice and beans on tables across the region. Many rural residents also receive monthly water deliveries.

More from this series: How Brazil keeps people alive while crops and livestock die (VIDEO)

Historically, droughts in the northeast have killed thousands of people or led to mass migrations to the cities of the southeast. Just a decade ago, droughts often led to looting as hungry farmers invaded supermarkets to feed their families.

This time, it’s different.

Rural northeastern Brazil isn’t dying, but it is being held back — its development and modernization delayed until the rains are back to normal.

As such, the drought exemplifies the broader economic and political challenges facing Brazil. As this vast South American country cools from a decade of “miracle” growth, economists warn that stagnation awaits Brazil unless Rousseff’s government makes significant investments in infrastructure and education.

The world is transfixed on the country’s megacities that are racing to get ready for all the games they will be hosting.

International media is paying close attention to the severe water shortage near one major host city, Sao Paulo. It prompted Brazil to lower its 2014 fiscal goal this week, Reuters reported. Shrinking reservoirs mean lower production at hydroelectric dams, which is forcing the Brazilian government to spend more on energy.

Meanwhile, the more prolonged drought in the northeast has remained largely obscured from public view outside Brazil.

This dusty, far-flung region is mainly composed of small, subsistence farms, in addition to some bigger sugar cane and soybean plantations. There are no major soccer stadiums in the Sertao — which means something like "backwoods" or "outback" — and families here said they’ve felt largely forgotten.

But the plight of the northeast farmer has long been a powerful tool in Brazilian politics, said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC.

With a general election set for this October, Brazil’s long-term response to the drought is a key test for the government.

Putting on a stellar World Cup is one thing. Stunning the world with Olympic Games is another. But once the crowds go home, Brazil will still have to show it can provide long-term solutions to residents and voters across the country.

“The technical resources are there, the solutions are there, so let’s get on with the show and avoid this problem in the future,” Sotero said.

“A country like Brazil, which wants to show the world it has progressed into the middle-class, should have already solved this problem.”

Videographer Jimmy Chalk contributed reporting.

More from this series: Feeding cactus to dying cows

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