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A resident walks with a dog across the drying bottom of the Paraibuna dam, part of the Cantareira water system that provides greater Sao Paulo with most of its water, in Redencao da Serra, August 11, 2014. (Roosevelt Cassio/REUTERS)
A resident walks with a dog across the drying bottom of the Paraibuna dam, part of the Cantareira water system that provides greater Sao Paulo with most of its water, in Redencao da Serra, August 11, 2014. (Roosevelt Cassio/REUTERS)

Unprecedented drought puts Sao Paulo water supply at risk Add to ...

It’s a game of chance, every time Zeina Reis da Cruz turns on her taps: Will anything come out? “Sometimes I have no water for two days, then it comes back on the next day and the day after that, I have no water again,” said Ms. Da Cruz, 55, who lives in the periferia, the low-income sprawl on the edge of Sao Paulo.

South America’s largest city is nine months into an unprecedented drought, with no end in sight. The water shortage is already squeezing businesses in Sao Paulo and threatens to further undermine the stalled economy in Brazil, until recently one of the world’s fastest-growing. The drought is also pushing up pollution levels and raising serious concerns about how Brazil will function in changing climate conditions. Residents in neighbourhoods like Ms. Da Cruz’s have been on rationed water for months – although, with an election just weeks away, city officials refuse to use that term.

“This is an election year and no one wants to acknowledge we have a huge problem, because absolute collapse in the water supply is something we have never experienced and it has far-reaching consequences,” said Paulo Nobre, director of the Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies at the National Institute for Space Research in Brasilia.

“It will be a real humanitarian disaster if it happens,” he added. “We are 20 million people: You can’t bring water on trucks for 20 million. So they are praying that rainfall will come – but it may not rain so much.”

A reservoir system called the Cantareira supplies about half of Sao Paulo’s water; currently it sits at a bit less than 10 per cent full. It is, in Mr. Nobre’s words, a creek where normally there is a lake – the most vivid physical evidence of a wider drought gripping southern and central Brazil.

The city has hastily installed new equipment to draw from the deepest levels of the Cantareira – like pulling from below the “E” on a car’s fuel tank, Mr. Nobre said. Rainfall is at its lowest level since his institute began to measure in 1945, he said, and it is impossible to say what the coming season will bring.

“This is where as scientists we can’t rely on the past, when we have so much concrete evidence that we are under climate change,” he said. “The longterm rainfall record has been decreasing year after year.”

The Sao Paulo Sanitation Company, known by its Portugese acronym Sabesp, declined to answer questions from the Globe and Mail but said in a statement that the water shortage has been managed through lowering water pressure at night and giving incentives for people who cut back on use. Customers who reduce their water use by 20 per cent get a 30 per cent reduction in their bill. And there is no rationing, Sabesp insisted.

That just makes Ms. da Cruz laugh, grimly. “He’s lying, to win again,” she says about the current state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, who is up for re-election next month and who, she is sure, has forbidden the utility to use the r-word.

The unofficial rationing and low pressure hit poor communities on hilltops hardest. “We have to fill bottles and buckets before we go out to work, so we can have something when we get home,” said Ms. da Cruz, who is a domestic worker in a rich part of the city. “Luckily here in the neighbourhood, there is a little old pipe. So, when the water stops coming from our taps everyone goes there to fill their buckets. But the lines get huge, with 50, 70 people … It’s awful to come back home, tired from working, wanting to take a shower and open the tap, and nothing.”

Meanwhile the extreme dryness has caused a shift in the barometric pressure above the city, sharply exacerbating already high air pollution levels. And it threatens to cause power failures, because three-quarters of Brazil’s electricity is produced from hydroelectric generation. The water shortage has cost utilities an estimated $7-billion so far, as they are replacing the lost hydro capacity by burning pricier oil and gas (which is in turn pushing up greenhouse gas emissions.)

The water shortage in Sao Paulo has an economic cost. Isabela Raposeiras, the owner of a coffee shop in a bohemian neighbourhood, said her revenue is down 10 per cent due to water cut-offs over the past six weeks. “If we have no water, we have nothing,” she said. “We can’t work with our main ingredient. We can’t wash the dishes. If we have no water, we close.”

She said she doesn’t object to rationing – in fact, she thinks it should have started long ago. “The problem is not scheduling anything. We need to plan it, we need to know with some advance warning, so we can use our creativity to get around this problem.” Some bars and restaurants in her area have taken to buying water off of trucks, for example, at about $500 each time they fill their the tanks on their buildings. But when the coffee shop water runs dry and she calls Sabesp, she said, the water company insists there is no problem in her area.

While there is no rationing, officially, in Sao Paulo, it is openly under way in 29 other cities. And the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo – the economic heartland of Brazil – are locked in an increasingly hostile fight over water resources, since Sao Paulo is trying to draw water from a river system that also serves the other two states. The federal government is trying to mediate, while Rio and Minas Gerais have appealed to the courts.

Marussia Whately, who works on water resource issues with a national environmental organization called the Socio-environmental Institute, called the measures to conserve water too little, too late. The drought was clearly forecast eight months ago, she noted. Neither Sabesp nor the state government has released data on consumption to make it possible to trace leaks and identify highest-use areas, she said, and although water is nominally a federal issue, that level of government has not got involved. As much as 40 per cent of the water Sabesp moves is reported to be lost to leaks, while Sao Paulo building codes do not require conservation measures such as low-flush toilets.

And in a country where citizens know they have 12 per cent of the world’s fresh water, but represent just three per cent of its population, there is no culture of conservation.

Part of the long-term rainfall shortage could be linked to Amazonian deforestation. The rain forest in northern Brazil releases giant clouds of vapour that carry moisture to the south, but the forest is steadily being cut away: According to satellite images collected in July by Brazil's space agency, the forest shrank by 10 per cent over the previous 12 months.

Sao Paulo’s officials, and its residents, are hoping for precipitation as the southern hemisphere spring begins. There have been only a few rainy days so far. Yet it would take a massive series of downpours even partially to recharge the reservoirs, noted Mr. Nobre, and that would beget a new set of problems.

“The rain is not delivered in cans,” said Mr. Nobre. “The cities are not prepared – if the amount of rain that we require to fill the reservoir falls within a few months, we would certainly have a disaster. It’s a question of what is worse, the lack or the excess of the water.”

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