Sao Paulo Sem Agua

Despite having the world’s largest water supply, taps are running dry in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo. Other major cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais are also being forced to grapple with the worst drought in nearly a century. While February’s rainfall has been above average, it is still a long way from replenishing reserves to stable levels.

But how has the water shortage situation become so dire? The origins of the crisis go far beyond the recent drought and can be attributed to array of factors:

  • Sao Paulo experienced unprecedented population growth during the 20th With over 20 million residents, the city’s outdated water system, known for its poor infrastructure and leaky pipes, has increasingly been unable to meet growing consumption demands. It is estimated that more than 30% of the city’s treated water is lost to leaks and pilfering[1]. Over the years, ineffective maintenance has led to the depletion of Sao Paulo’s water system.
  • Sao Paulo’s main water reservoir network, the Cantareira system, is at its lowest point ever recorded, below 7% of its capacity[2].
  • Severe pollution of the Tiete and Pinheiros rivers has eliminated these as a viable water source.
  • Population growth has led to the destruction of surrounding forests and wetlands that have historically soaked up rain and released the water into the reservoirs.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon River basin is also at fault. Experts cite that cutting down the forest reduces its capacity to release humidity into the air, reducing rainfall in southeast Brazil[3]. Loss of the world’s greatest rainforest has disrupted Brazil’s weather patterns[4].
  • Scientists state that global warming is also to blame for the severe drought conditions. Nonetheless, Brazil’s new science minister, Aldo Rebelo, a denier or climate change, discredits this assertion[5].

To deal with the water shortage, Sao Paulo’s water utility Sabesp is promoting incentives for families to reduce their water usage, instituting fines for excessive usage, and installing water savers on taps[6]. While rationing has not officially been implemented, the shutoffs residents are experiencing are a de facto form of rationing. Since last year, residents have reported shutoffs lasting from hours to days on end. The water utility claims it is planning the construction of new reservoirs, however, these efforts won’t aid the crisis in the short-term.

In the meantime, residents have taken to the streets to protest the local and national mismanagement that has led to the intensifying water crisis. Residents and business owners have had to adjust their lifestyle to account for the shortages. Bathing on a daily basis has become impossible for millions, and running a business in a sanitary way has become a challenge. Schools have altered their school lunch menus to account for the lack of water to wash dishes, hair dressers have had to restrict their services because they cannot wash clients’ hair, and restaurants have struggled with food preparation and sanitation requirements.

While Sao Paulo residents look to the government to find an immediate solution to the water crisis, the prospect of a short-term solution is bleak. Water specialists warn that Sao Paulo may only be experiencing the early stages of the crisis[7].

Analidis Ochoa-Bendaña
MPP ’15


[1] Romero, Simon. “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html&gt;.

[2] Loria, Kevin. “São Paulo and the 20 Million People Who Live There Are Literally Running out of Water and It’s Getting Dangerous.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

[3] Romero, Simon. “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html&gt;.

[4] Romero, Simon. “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html&gt;.

[5] Watts, Jonathan. “Brazil’s Worst Drought in History Prompts Protests and Blackouts.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/brazil-worst-drought-history&gt;.

[6] Bowater, Donna. “Taps Run Dry in Brazil’s Biggest City as Drought Bites.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/brazil/11428718/Taps-run-dry-in-Brazils-biggest-city-as-drought-bites.html&gt;.

[7] Romero, Simon. “Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html&gt;.

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