São Paulo could be headed to another water crisis

. Jan 15, 2018
São Paulo water crisis: Cantareira. Photo: Fernanda Carvalho/FP São Paulo water crisis: Cantareira. Photo: Fernanda Carvalho/FP
São Paulo water crisis: Cantareira. Photo: Fernanda Carvalho/FP

São Paulo water crisis: Cantareira. Photo: Fernanda Carvalho/FP

Intense rainfall put the city of São Paulo on an anti-flood alert until yesterday. Meanwhile, however, the city’s main water supply reservoir, the Cantareira Complex, is down to alarmingly low levels of water. Responsible for supplying water to over half of São Paulo’s metropolitan area of 20 million people, Cantareira is operating at 41 percent of its capacity, close to its 2013 levels – one year prior to São Paulo’s worst water crisis in a century.

During the 2014-2016 water crisis, rainfall was just half of the previous worst year on records, dating back to the early 20th century. By October 2014, Cantareira was at less than 7 percent of its volume – barely a month’s supply.

</p> <p>Over 9 million people were forced to ration water. At the time, a report by the state audit office pointed out that the shortage was the result of &#8220;lack of planning.” It declared that if the government had paid attention to warning signs, which began as early as 2004, the crisis could have been either averted or minimized.</p> <p>During the crisis, Geraldo Alckmin’s state administration launched a series of engineering projects to fight the water crisis. But those were merely quick fixes to a problem that had been brewing for decades.</p> <p>Yet the local government’s shortcomings are not the only reason for the droughts. Since 2012, rainfall in the state of São Paulo has been lower than the average of 1,500 mm. The water crisis reached its worst point in 2014, which was also the year with the lowest amount of rain – almost half of the average. While it seemed that the situation had returned to normal by 2015 and 2016, rainfall was down again last year. And 2018 isn’t off to a <a href="">better start</a>. Over the year’s first ten days, it rained just 30 percent of what was expected.</p> <p><script id="infogram_0_befae18b-08e3-4f8f-9181-7f39eaab7818" title="Water supply - São Paulo" src="" type="text/javascript"></script></p> <div style="padding:8px 0;font-family:Arial!important;font-size:13px!important;line-height:15px!important;text-align:center;border-top:1px solid #dadada;margin:0 30px"><a href="" style="color:#989898!important;text-decoration:none!important;" target="_blank">Water supply &#8211; São Paulo</a><br /> <a href="" style="color:#989898!important;text-decoration:none!important;" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Infogram</a></div> <p>And it might get worse because of <em>La Niña</em>, a weather phenomenon that causes periods of below-average sea surface temperatures across the east-central Equatorial Pacific. <em>La Niña</em> often causes droughts in Brazil’s Center-West, Southeastern, and Southern regions.</p> <p>In November 2017, Jerson Kelman, president of São Paulo&#8217;s water company, Sabesp, admitted that deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is another reason for São Paulo&#8217;s droughts &#8211; even if the metropolis is thousands of kilometers away.</p> <p>“The Amazon creates a movement of water. If you could follow a molecule of water, you would see that most of the clouds over São Paulo have passed across the Amazon. If the forest is cut, we’ll be in trouble,” he said.</p> <h3>The São Francisco drought</h3> <p>The Cantareira Complex is by no means the only one facing problems. In 2017 alone, 861 municipalities have declared a state of emergency due to a lack of rainfall.</p> <p>One of Brazil’s main sources of fresh water, the São Francisco River Basin, which covers 7.5 percent of the country’s territory, is also facing one of its worst droughts in history. But low rainfall is not the only cause, as experts point out that the poor use of hydric resources might be among the primary causes of the water crisis. According to the São Francisco Hydric Basin Committee, the “instruments to manage the water resources have not been put into place by state administrations.”</p> <div id="attachment_2197" style="width: 650px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2197" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-2197" src="" alt="São Francisco water crisis. Photo: Marcello Casal/ABr" width="640" height="399" srcset=" 640w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 640px) 100vw, 640px" /><p id="caption-attachment-2197" class="wp-caption-text">São Francisco water crisis. Photo: Marcello Casal/ABr</p></div> <p>The São Francisco River begins in the Canastra Mountains, in Minas Gerais. It traverses the states of Bahia, Sergipe, and Alagoas until it finally reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the river are four hydroelectric dams, altering its flow.</p> <p>As the government has failed to control the use of underground water reserves, many landowners have illegally pumped water from these sources – drying out many spots, especially next to the river source.</p> <p>In 2016, Michel Temer’s administration launched a plan to send federal money into projects of <a href="">public sanitation</a> and infrastructure in the São Francisco basin. The plan also included new areas of environmental preservation. However, it has suffered from budget cuts, and investments have been lower than they were back in 2015.</p> <p>Environmental activists and public institutions insist that hydroelectric plants should be deactivated in the São Francisco region. The river crosses an arid region, where sunlight is abundant. It would make sense to install solar panels across this desert-like area. On a positive note, the Bank of Nordeste plans to launch credit lines of 27 billion BRL to projects involving renewable sources of energy.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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