Brazil finally gets some rain, but rationing still looms

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Heavy rains during Brazil's four-and-a-half-day Carnival holiday offered the first relief in months for the country's drought-stricken and economically crucial southeast, but was unlikely to end fears of water and electricity shortages. A cold front along Brazil's southeastern coast near the two principal cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro brought heavy rains on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to most of the region and the neighboring center-west, home to much of the country's farm belt. The southeast is Brazil's most populous and economically developed industrial region. The southeast and center-west together produce the bulk of such key Brazilian export crops as soybeans, coffee, sugar and orange juice. Uncertainty over the drought and its consequences on jobs, public health and overall quality of life have further darkened Brazilians' mood at a time when the economy is struggling and President Dilma Rousseff's popularity is at an all-time low. Despite the recent rains, precipitation will need to continue at above-average levels for months to refill nearly empty drinking water and hydroelectricity reservoirs to sustainable levels. Water levels in reservoirs run by Sabesp, which manages most water and sewage services in the state of Sao Paulo, rose 0.8 percent from Tuesday to Wednesday but remained at only 20.4 percent of their total, Sabesp said. Sabesp's Cantareira reservoir system, which serves many of the nearly 20 million people in metropolitan Sao Paulo, rose 0.6 percent but remains at only 8.9 percent of capacity. The levels remained critically low despite above-average rainfall so far this month in Sao Paulo. Many Brazilians are hoarding water in apartments, drilling homemade wells and taking other measures to prepare for forced rationing that appeared likely and could leave taps dry for four to five days a week. Other cities in Brazil's southeast such as Rio face less dire shortages but could also see rationing, according to experts and officials. Rainfall in eight of 10 agricultural areas monitored by meteorology consultant Somar, which do not include Sao Paulo state, were more than 50 percent below February averages even after recent rains. Brazilian consumers were expected to be asked to cut electricity use or face rolling blackouts in coming months. Water levels in southeastern and center-west hydrodam reservoirs are at 18.7 percent of maximum, near the lowest levels in at least 16 years. (Reporting by Jeb Blount; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)