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DROUGHT LEAVES LUSH BRAZIL PARCHED AND SCARED

When Ambassador Mohamed Abdel-Wahab woke one morning last week in this nation, synonymous with dense rainforests and huge rivers, he could have sworn he was back home in Egypt.

"The dryness was unbelievable," said Abdel-Wahab, who had arrived in Brazil's capital just days earlier. "I couldn't breathe. My wife couldn't breathe. It felt like it was even worse than the Sahara."He was right - the humidity was 9 percent, even lower than the famous desert.

But his temporary discomfort is proving to be a graver problem for Brazil. Major regions of the country are in the midst of a months-long drought. It has wiped out large stocks of cattle and spawned huge forest fires that have scorched thousands of acres. It also is imperiling the soybean, rice, snap bean and sugar cane crops.

Hardest hit has been the state of Sao Paulo, home of the hemisphere's largest city and heart of the nation's cattle and agriculture regions. Aside from a brief shower last week, much of the state has been without rain for four months. More than 80,000 head of cattle have perished in the past two weeks, milk production is down by 20 percent and state officials estimate agriculture in the area has suffered $250 million in damage.

Oriealeo Brunini, coordinator of the state Agro-Meteorological Service, said the drought has stunted sugar cane and the parched soil cannot be prepared for planting other crops, resulting in temporary layoffs of hundreds of seasonal workers. "We don't know how bad it's gong to be, but it is bad," Brunini said. "The coffee crop could also be affected."

That could be a serious blow to the world's largest coffee producing nation. More than 40 percent of next year's crop has already been wiped out by a frost that hit the region in June.

The drought has been so deep that the water level in Paraibuna Dam has dropped the equivalent of the height of a 30-story building, revealing ruins of bridges and old colonial structures in parts of the city of Redencao da Serra; they were intentionally flooded by the dam in 1975.

The drought also has hit tourism in the picturesque city, which has dropped 70 percent, said Mayor Thomaz Dias, whose city lies 100 miles east of Sao Paulo. "We live principally off the use of the dam," Dias said. "With the drought, we are forced to live with this desert."

In the state's Rio Preto region, raging fires have burned an area the size of 2,000 football fields, including 8,000 yards of communications wire and 55 transmission towers. The resulting smoke and dust have pushed up pollution levels in the city of Sao Paulo so much that residents, like street sweeper Elias Conceicao, 21, now report to work with dust masks.