Brazil drought reignites daylight saving debate

"Summer schedule" could end because of drought, because of power rationing.


World News

September 24, 2021 - 4:07 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Dyane Rodrigues used to enjoy strolling along Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Ipanema beach after a hot summer’s day. Daylight saving time meant her workday went by faster, and ended early enough for her to take in the golden sunset, the 28-year-old said from her fruit stand, a stone’s throw from the seashore.

That changed in 2019, when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro did away with the practice of changing clocks. The idea behind daylight saving time had been to make most of long summer days’ natural light, delaying by one hour the time at which households switch on their lamps. But the president said daylight saving no longer made sense, as it yielded little in energy savings and forced Brazilians to commute in the dark, and many experts agreed.

But once again, daylight saving — known here as “summer schedule” — has surged to the fore.

Brazil is in the throes of its worst drought in 91 years, which has returned the specter of power rationing. The operator of the hydroelectric-reliant grid is reviewing the scope of benefits sacrificed by the 2019 change, and federal lawmakers discussed its return this week. Associations linked to the tourism and service industries, sensing opportunity to boost evening business, are chiming in with their support.

Since implementation in 1931, summer schedule has divided Brazilians between those who bathe in morning light and those — like Dyane — who prefer their sunsets. Governments wavered in decades that followed, adopting it some years but not others. Starting in 1985, when drought caused blackouts and water rationing, summer schedule was renewed each year by presidential decree. It became a fixture in 2008. 

A decade later, a Senate-led poll of nearly 13,000 people found them roughly split, with 55% in favor of ending summer schedule. Bills proposing the change didn’t advance, so Bolsonaro ended the practice by decree. He admitted he’d never been a fan, and cited studies showing negative impact on people’s biological clocks.

People like Dyane were disappointed, but at the time almost no one was worried about electricity. 

Fast forward two years, and Brazil’s reservoirs are dwindling. In a country where almost two-thirds of power comes from hydroelectric generation, low rainfall has serious consequences. The situation is so bad, Bolsonaro asked Brazilians on Sept. 23 to stop using elevators when possible, and to take “much healthier” cold showers.

“Help us,” Bolsonaro pleaded on his weekly Facebook broadcast. 

Reservoir levels in the southeast and center west regions are lower than in 2001 when the country last experienced an electricity crisis; power was rationed for eight months. Since then, the country has installed thermoelectric generation plants as a costlier backup supply, but experts say it wasn’t enough. This week, the governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s second most populous state, warned power could run out “at any time.”

“The system was not made to function with a situation like this one,” said Roberto Brandão, senior researcher at the electricity sector studies group of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “The only reason why we’re not seeing greater problems is because of the economic crises of the last few years, and lower consumption than expected.”

This year’s drought comes at the tail-end of nearly a decade of lower-than-usual precipitation, and some experts have linked this such extreme weather to climate change. Amazon rainforest deforestation also reduces evaporation of moisture that then travels on air currents to provide rainfall far afield.

Bolsonaro’s opponents have blamed him for a delayed response to a problem experts flagged months ago. Others say this isn’t a problem that can be solved from one year to the next, nor by one administration.

“Frankly, the (power) sector is not designed to face such bad hydrology,” said Brandão, who foresees possible rationing this year.

Energy minister Bento Albuquerque, who said Bolsonaro had been briefed on a looming water crisis in October last year, has dismissed critics. Brazil has introduced a “water scarcity” electrical rate, increased energy imports from Argentina and Uruguay, accelerated infrastructure projects that can distribute power from the less affected northeast to the south, and created a national committee that can swiftly reverse regional rules to optimize power and water usage.

Earlier this month, Albuquerque asked the grid operator to analyze the benefits of restoring summer schedule, which his ministry said it is still examining. But on Sept. 17, Albuquerque said “there is no need for summer schedule to return in 2021.”

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