Sea advocate-NASA scientist analyzes the water supply crisis in Brazil

Dear Friends,

Our guest in today’s interview is Dr. Augusto Getirana. At the age of 34, Augusto is a water resources management specialist, with a Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, a Master’s and a Ph.D. at that same institution, and another Ph.D. at the University of Toulouse. Respected worldwide by his expertise in the field, currently resides in Washington, D.C., and works for NASA.

Having spent his childhood and teen years in Rio de Janeiro, today Augusto tells us about his work, his relationship with the sea, and how the current Brazilian energetic planning crisis may affect the lives of all those who care about nature, our rivers and oceans (all photos: courtesy of Augusto Getirana).

Having spent his childhood and teen years in Rio de Janeiro, today Augusto tells us about his work, his relationship with the sea, and how the current Brazilian energetic planning crisis may affect the lives of all those who care about nature, our rivers and oceans (all photos: courtesy of Augusto Getirana).

Addressing a quite relevant theme on the present Brazilian conjuncture, the interview was conducted between May and August 2014, and aimed at presenting the opinion of a scientist specialist in the subject, certain of the importance of bringing this information to our public. Thank you, Augusto, for your time. Shall we begin?

***

SurfingPedagogy.com: DEAR AUGUSTO, GOOD MORNING! COULD YOU BEGIN BY TELLING US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR RELATION WITH THE SEA?

Augusto: Good morning.

Every carioca has a certain relationship with the sea. In some cases, of course, a more intimate one, and I am no exception to it. I’ve been going to the beach very often ever since my childhood. As a teenager, I used to bodysurf and bodyboard in Barra da Tijuca – and I even attempted stand-up surfing at some point. To be honest, I can’t recall why I quit those activities later on.

For a long time, the beach represented just a recreational environment on the sand for me. Back in 2010, when I was living in Toulouse, France, I decided to join the maritime sports association Les Amir de la Mer, where I began scuba diving, an activity that has forever fascinated me.

I’ve had the chance to dive in places in France, Thailand, Madagascar, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Honduras and Arraial do Cabo (Brazil). However, it was in the Honduran island of Utila where I had my first freediving experience.

In opposition to scuba diving, freediving to me is a more challenging sport, as it demands much higher levels of physical and mental conditioning. It was an incredible feeling descending 23 meters deep with only a single breath and noticing that immense body of water above me!

Today my relation with the sea takes place in the 10-40 meter deep range, most of the time. Of course that living inland makes it harder for me to keep up with those activities on a regular basis. But my will to keep exploring the ocean remains.

Augusto, on the way to another one of his dives (Playa del Carmen, Mexico).

Augusto, on the way to another one of his dives (Playa del Carmen, Mexico).

SurfingPedagogy.com: AND WHAT ABOUT UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY, HOW DID IT ENTER YOUR LIFE?

Augusto: Underwater photography is something that came naturally to me, along with the learning of scuba diving, as I have always enjoyed photography. It started during my level 1 scuba diving course, back in 2011, when I bought a Nikon portable camera and an underwater housing, and then took off to Thailand for vacation, where I took my first pictures.

Of course those pics did not come out exactly as I wished, as I lacked any kind of familiarity with the equipment and the underwater environment by then. To tell you the truth, I still consider myself very inexperienced in that field, and I still have a lot to learn. I prefer to think I’m more of a curious amateur in that regard.

Sea photography challenges are just so many. There are so many variables we need to consider, starting from breathing and underwater balancing up to mastering control over the photographic equipment. All that reminds me of a story, also in Utila, when after departing for two morning dives, the captain of the boat noticed signs of a whale shark near us – despite being a gigantic shark, the whale shark is docile.

The captain brought the boat as close as possible to the fish, and all divers jumped in the water (wearing fins, mask and snorkel) to take an underwater view. I recorded a video – that came out a little shaky, as I decided not to put on my fins in order to rush to the water (a very bad idea, by the way), so I had to follow the shark with a one-arm stroke (!), as the other was holding the camera. Despite the hard time, it was a great experience!

In Honduras, Augusto was able to capture some nice underwater moments: this one was taken in the waters of Utila.

In Honduras, Augusto was able to capture some nice underwater moments: this one was taken in the waters of Utila.

SurfingPedagogy.com: AUGUSTO, NOW COULD YOU BRIEFLY DESCRIBE US YOUR ACADEMIC CAREER?

Augusto: I am currently a researcher at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Hydrological Sciences Lab. I got a Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 2003, a Master’s in Water Resources Management at COPPE/UFRJ in 2005, a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences at University of Toulouse III in 2009, and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering/Hydrology at UFRJ also in 2009. I have previously worked at the French Meteorological Service (Meteo-France) and at the French Space Agency (CNES), both based in Toulouse.

My lines of research include the comprehension of hydrological processes under various spatial/temporal scales, and extreme events – such as floods and droughts – employing hydrological models and remote sensing data.

For the relevance of his research and academic work, in December 2013 Augusto was elected to speak at the 50th year anniversary of COPPE (UFRJ Engineering Graduate Programs Coordination), to an audience of thousands, on behalf of the group of students and former students who were chosen to receive honors by that institution.

For the relevance of his research and academic work, in December 2013 Augusto was elected to speak at the 50th year anniversary of COPPE (UFRJ Engineering Graduate Programs Coordination), to an audience of thousands, on behalf of the group of students and former students who were chosen to receive honors by that institution.

SurfingPedagogy.com: LATELY IN BRAZIL WE HAVE BEEN WITNESSING SEVERAL WATER RESOURCES SPECIALISTS IN THE MEDIA, WORRIED ABOUT THE IMMINENT HYDROELECTRIC SUPPLY CRISIS IN OUR COUNTRY. ARE YOU AWARE OF THIS SITUATION? HOW DOES NASA PARTICIPATE, EFFECTIVELY, IN THE U.S. ENERGETIC PLANNING, AND HAS THERE BEEN ANY REPERCUSSION OVER THERE ABOUT THE RECENT FACTS IN THIS MATTER HERE IN BRAZIL?

Augusto: Yes, I have been keeping up with the Brazilian water news through the Internet and also through friends who keep me updated with articles from the main Brazilian newspapers. This situation results from a long story of (1) lack of projection, (2) undersizing and/or (3) precariousness associated with water resources engineering works under the authority of the Brazilian government. This subject has become a highlight on the Brazilian news because it directly affects the lives of all citizens in its two major cities, causing restrictions on water consumption and electric energy. Other major consequences I would like to recall here are the mudslides that take place every year in the state of Rio, countless floods each summer and poor sanitation. But as these later problems are more recurrent, they unfortunately have already become part of the Brazilian’s everyday. The drought episode is related to a longer interval of recurrence, thus it kind of becomes a ‘surprise’ each time it happens. Nevertheless, world recent climatic changes tend to make such climatological extremes more frequent.

The absence of an efficient monitoring system is another reason that helps explain how we’ve got to this point. I’ve been living in the U.S. for three years now and, accordingly to my observations, the citizen’s well-being and safety are taken seriously. They possess a highly efficient monitoring system, employing data from several NASA satellites in the development of precise predictions.

Because energy in the U.S. is primarily produced from non-renewable resources – such as oil, gas and coal –, NASA does not directly participate in the American energetic planning. NASA’s Earth Sciences Division could, for example, contribute more dramatically in the case of renewable energy sources – like hydroelectric, solar and wind –, but today those remain as a minor fraction of the total energetic consumption in the U.S..

Brazil has made a historic choice for hydroelectricity, which today corresponds to approximately 85% of the electricity produced in our country. On one side, this represents a smaller impact on the environment – if compared to other non-renewable energy sources, like oil, gas and coal. But on the other side, it makes the country vulnerable to the great climatic changes that the world has been suffering.

In spite of NASA not directly participating in the U.S. energetic planning, products produced by that institution – with satellite images and computational models – are primordial to the country’s meteorological comprehension and forecasting.

At NASA, Augusto investigates the development of new technologies related to the dynamics of water in our planet. Besides writing articles and book chapters, participating in seminars and delivering lectures, he also finds time to keep up with today’s Brazilian water problems.

At NASA, Augusto investigates the development of new technologies related to the dynamics of water in our planet. Besides writing articles and book chapters, participating in seminars and delivering lectures, he also finds time to keep up with today’s Brazilian water problems.

SurfingPedagogy.com: WITH RESPECT TO THE USE OF HYDROLOGICAL MODELS AND REMOTE SENSING DATA IN YOUR LINES OF RESEARCH, COULD YOU BE MORE SPECIFIC ABOUT WHICH TOOLS DOES NASA PROVIDE TO YOUR PROJECTS SO YOU CAN DELIVER, FOR INSTANCE, ESTIMATES ON BRAZILIAN WATER DEFICIT?

Augusto: Nowadays several observation satellites orbit Earth, and they are operated by a series of space agencies worldwide. Working in collaboration with some of those agencies, Brazil’s INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais) receives valuable real-time (and near real-time) information regarding different physical processes in course on the planet, which leads us to a broader understanding of the terrestrial dynamics. Certain satellites monitor Earth’s surface water in different states and forms – such as rain, soil humidity, water levels on rivers, lakes and oceans, and variations in the total amount of water stored on the planet.

In order to evaluate water scarcity levels within Brazil’s Northeast and Southeast regions, to give an example, I’ve used data from satellite GRACE (Gravimetry Recovery and Climate Experiment), which measures Earth’s gravity variation through time. With that information, it is possible to estimate the water volume variation within a certain region from time to time. As a result, when compared to the average of previous years, for the year 2013 I’ve detected a severe water deficit for Brazil’s entire Northeast, plus part of its Southeast and Midwest regions. I present this and other results in an article that will be published on an international scientific periodical soon.

The use of satellite data with computational models is paramount when it comes to predicting floods and droughts. NASA develops models that provide information on a daily basis about the state of Earth’s water, and that are available on the Internet for free. In my case, I help develop one of those modeling systems (I’ve been using a model I developed a few years ago to study the hydrological processes in the particular case of the Amazon basin – even though it could also be used on a global scale).

2013 water deficit, in terms of the average amount of available water in South America between 2003 and 2013. Values are given in centimeters. The map indicates that the red regions have suffered a 15cm reduction in their total stored water. Numbers may seem small, but if we consider the Northeast, for example, in that year the region experienced a 101,4km3 water deficit (enough water to fill – or, in this case, to empty – 40 million Olympic-size swimming pools) (unpublished data: courtesy of Augusto Getirana).

2013 water deficit, in terms of the average amount of available water in South America between 2003 and 2013. Values are given in centimeters. The map indicates that the red regions have suffered a 15cm reduction in their total stored water. Numbers may seem small, but if we consider the Northeast, for example, in that year the region experienced a 101,4km3 water deficit (enough water to fill – or, in this case, to empty – 40 million Olympic-size swimming pools) (unpublished data: courtesy of Augusto Getirana).

SurfingPedagogy.com: IN YOUR OPINION, HOW COULD BRAZIL PROGRESS TOWARDS A MORE COMPREHENSIVE, SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT? DOES IT SEEM POSSIBLE TO YOU THAT WE LEARN ANYTHING FROM THIS SITUATION, SO OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN MAY HAVE THEIR RIGHT TO EARTH’S REMAINING NATURAL RESOURCES GUARANTEED?

Augusto: Brazil is the largest producer of fresh water in the world, answering for over 20% of all the water that flows out to the oceans. However, its distribution is neither spatially nor temporally homogeneous: water is not equally available throughout the country, and neither over time.

To make things worse, we observe that Brazil’s industrial development and populational growth has for a long time been virtually confined to regions historically deprived of water, more precisely the Northeast and Southeast. This generates a water stress over the population and the economy during extended drought periods (as was the case in 2001, when we had to put up with the “Apagão”; and now more recently, when once again our water situation finds itself in jeopardy).

Other industrialized countries needed to be in dire straits first, before realizing the importance of developing innovative solutions to their water-related problems. In Brazil, we currently possess the necessary know-how to solve the majority of the water resources-related problems we face on our everyday situations. What we need now is to aggregate this in loco knowledge into a set of guidelines for sustainable development and also with focus on improving our ability to adapt to this new reality of unexpected climatic changes.

SurfingPedagogy.com: IF BRAZIL POSSESSES THE KNOW-HOW TO SOLVE ITS WATER SUPPLY PROBLEMS ON ITS OWN, THEN WHAT MEASURES DO YOU THINK OUR GOVERNMENT COULD IMPLEMENT, IMMEDIATELY, SEEKING TO GAIN TIME AND EASE THE CURRENT SCENARIO? WOULD IT BE NECESSARY TO ASK FOR EXTERNAL HELP? DO YOU SEE ANY MEANS OF COOPERATION IN TERMS OF INFORMATION/SERVICES FROM NASA TO THE BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT ON THIS ISSUE, AND/OR HOW BENEFICIAL DO YOU BELIEVE IT WOULD BE FOR BRAZIL TO RECEIVE SUCH SUPPORT?

Augusto: Most certainly, Brazil is doing well in terms of its company of water resources specialists capable of defining good managerial guidelines. In my opinion, the only last-minute maneuver to be considered would be the adoption of water consumption control until reservoirs return to their normal levels. Effective solutions to these matters must be planned and evaluated so that socioeconomic-environmental impact may be taken into account and minimized – and this takes time.

Brazil’s 2014 drought is something that has been expected for quite a long time and, as I said before, in 2013 there were signs of water shortages in the Northeast and Southeast already. I don’t think external help to be necessary. On the contrary, good will on behalf of Brazilian politicians is just what it takes to foster permanent solutions.

Nearly all data and information on natural resources produced by NASA is available online for free. Delivered by other centers of research, some computational models are also free to use. Though convenient, the possibility of free access to this data does not generate an automatic demand for technological advancements, thus allowing for user countries to remain technologically stagnant.

A comment I’ve made in my thesis, and that I judge pertinent to repeat here, was that countries such as Brazil, whose advances are evident, are still regarded as consumers of information acquired by foreign centers of research. It is essential that our country enters the competition for state of the art technology, so we can aggregate more knowledge and address problem solutions more efficiently.

Augusto presents his studies in several parts of the globe. Wherever he goes, he seeks to somehow transmit his message that progress and nature are inseparable. On this photo, Augusto was in Lima, teaching at the Instituto Geofísico del Perú.

Augusto presents his studies in several parts of the globe. Wherever he goes, he seeks to somehow transmit his message that progress and nature are inseparable. On this photo, Augusto was in Lima, teaching at the Instituto Geofísico del Perú.

SurfingPedagogy.com: AUGUSTO, IT WAS OUR PLEASURE TO RECEIVE YOU HERE. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR YOUR ATTENTION, CONGRATULATIONS FOR YOUR SUCCESS, AND WE HOPE THAT YOU MAY HAVE YOUR TALENT INCREASINGLY RECOGNIZED. WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEAVE A FAREWELL MESSAGE TO OUR READERS?

Augusto: I believe that each one of us assumes an essential role in the dissemination of attitudes, behaviors and eco-friendly actions. I think we must leave behind the idea of “I’m not going to be the only one doing this”.

In the time when I used to go to the beach while I was a teenager – mid 90s, when littering was still considered a “normal” conduct for the Rio de Janeiro standards –, I remember of a friend that would always collect other people’s trash as he left the beach. That was my very first example of someone doing such a thing.

Just as that single isolated action (as it seemed to me, at that time) changed my behavior on the beach, it has certainly influenced so many others out there. And that goes not only for littering, but also for the pollution produced by our cars, the preference for low-environmental impact products, etc.

We must start acting as part of a society and assume our share of responsibility for the actual state we find ourselves in, rather than playing victims.

Finally, I’d like to thank the opportunity of this interview and, also, everyone’s attention: thank you!

Nice photo, also by Augusto, to complete our conversation: Nature waves hello to the photographer, in the waters of Samaná, province of the Dominican Republic.

Nice photo, also by Augusto, to complete our conversation: Nature waves hello to the photographer, in the waters of Samaná, province of the Dominican Republic.

******

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One thought on “Sea advocate-NASA scientist analyzes the water supply crisis in Brazil

  1. Tiara

    What’s up every one, here every one is sharing
    such experience, so it’s nice tto read thi webpage, and I
    used to pay a quick visit this weblog daily.

    Reply

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