Brazil drought: Sao Paulo sleepwalking into water crisis

Mud in reservoir
Image caption Levels in the Cantareira reservoir system remain dangerously low

In Brazil's biggest city, a record dry season and ever-increasing demand for water has led to a punishing drought.

It has actually been raining quite heavily over the last few days in and around Sao Paulo but it has barely made a drop of difference.

The main reservoir system that feeds this immense city is still dangerously low, and it would take months of intense, heavy rainfall for water levels to return to anything like normal.

So how does a country that produces an estimated 12% of the world's fresh water end up with a chronic shortage of this most essential resource - in its biggest and most economically important city?

It's interesting to note that both the local state government and the federal government have been slow to acknowledge there is a crisis, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

That might have been a politically expedient position to take during the recent election campaign, when the shortage of water in Sao Paulo was a thorny political issue, but the apparent lack of urgency in the city and wider state now is worrying many.

At the main Cantareira reservoir system, which feeds much of this city's insatiable demand for water, things have almost reached rock bottom.

Huge pipes suck out what water remains as the reservoir dips below 10% of its usual capacity. The odd local villager wanders around the dry bed of the lake hoping for a temporary windfall as fish flounder in the few pools that remain.

In the town of Itu, not far from the slowly diminishing reservoir, Gilberto Rodriguez and several of his neighbours wait patiently in line.

All of them are carrying as many jerry cans, empty plastic drinks bottles or buckets as they can muster. For weeks now they've been filling up with water from this emergency well. Twice a day Gilberto heaves the full containers into his car and heads home.

Every other house on the short drive seems to have a homemade poster pinned to the gate or doorframe. The same message, or plea, is written on each one; "Itu pede Socorro" - "Itu needs help".

Polluted rivers

Gilberto and his wife almost break into a laugh when I suggest to them that, according to Sao Paulo's state government, the situation is manageable and there's no need for water rationing.

Image caption Gilberto and Soraya have had to cope with rationing for nine months

"There's been no water in our pipes now for a month," says Soraya.

"It's not as bad as this in every community but we've had water rationing here since February."

The car-crash scenario of a record dry season coupled with the ever-increasing demand for resources from South America's biggest city seems almost to have caught the state water authority, Sabesp, by surprise. The authority, in turn, is being widely criticised for failing to plan and is now trying to manage a crisis.

Home to some 20 million people, the sprawling city of Sao Paulo continues to grow. But the failure of city services and basic infrastructure to keep pace merely exacerbates the problems, in particular the dwindling supplies of clean water.

Open sewers mean that Sao Paulo's rivers are completely polluted. They're now part of the problem rather than, as should be in times of drought, part of the solution.

Image caption The city authorities are struggling to cope with the crisis

Maria Cecilia Brito is part of the umbrella organisation Alliance for Waters, which is belatedly trying to raise public awareness about the chronic shortages.

"People here were brought up to believe that water was a resource that would never end," Maria Cedilla tells me at her office in downtown Sao Paulo, a leviathan of a metropolis that has long since outgrown any system that could adequately support it.

She goes on: "We were taking more water from the sources than those sources were able to replenish through natural means."

'Like an elephant'

But now one of Brazil's leading scientists is suggesting that the causes of the drought may be even more worrying for Brazil in the long run.

Image copyright Greenpeace
Image caption Mr Nobre says the drought is linked to Amazon deforestation

Antonio Nobre is one of country's most respected Earth scientists and climatologists. He argues there is enough evidence to say that continued deforestation in the Amazon and the almost complete disappearance of the Atlantic forest has drastically altered the climate.

"There is a hot dry air mass sitting down here [in Sao Paulo] like an elephant and nothing can move it," says the eminent scientist, who divides his time between the southern city of Sao Jose dos Campos and the Amazon city of Manaus.

"That's what we have learned - that the forests have an innate ability to import moisture and to cool down and to favour rain… If deforestation in the Amazon continues, Sao Paulo will probably dry up. If we don't act now, we're lost," adds Mr Nobre, whose recent report on the plight of the Amazon caused a huge stir in scientific and political circles.

Water shortages have the potential to harm the economy too, and that's where the politicians in Sao Paulo and Brasilia just might start to act.

Sao Paulo is by far Brazil's richest state - the engine of the country's economic growth - but if water and electricity, generated by hydroelectric dams, start running out the consequences for the economy could be dire.

At a car parts factory in the north of the city I meet businessman Mauricio Colin. His aluminium plant needs about 15,000 litres of water a day to operate at normal capacity. Mauricio is already having to buy in extra water. He is worried about future supplies.

"The authorities know exactly what's needed," says Mauricio, above the din of his round-the-clock operation. "They have to invest in basic infrastructure because, without water, there are companies here who won't be able to produce anything."

Thus far public protests against the water shortages have been small - but the potential for frustration and disruption is there.

Sao Paulo's Water Authority has now acknowledged that unless water levels recover there may be power cuts and more water rationing. Everyone is praying for more rain, hoping that it's not too late.

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