By Dom Phillips
18 November 2014
ATIBAIA, Brazil (Washington Post) – Seen from a micro-light aircraft, flying low near this small town in Brazil’s interior, the scale of the water crisis blighting São Paulo, a megalopolis 40 miles away, was frighteningly clear. Four of the five reservoirs in an interlinked system that supplies 6.5 million people, more than a third of its metropolitan population, were vividly depleted. Caked red banks of exposed earth showed just how low the water levels had fallen.
Parts of the Jaguari Reservoir, the highest in what is called the Cantareira System, were so dried out that plants had begun growing on the rocks around a blue pleasure boat, marooned near a wooden landing dock hundreds of yards from any water. A stagnant brown puddle did not trouble the sluice gates of a dam.
Boat jetties stretched forlornly across banks of red mud from the luxury houses that used to sit by the water’s edge in the adjoining Jacareí Reservoir. Although there was more water in two other lower-level reservoirs, there were also dried-up inlets and red, exposed banks, and the Atibaia River was in places just a muddy eddy.
The biggest city in South America has been stuck in a spiraling water crisis since the summer rains failed to fall last December and January — the driest summer in 84 years. An exceptionally dry winter since then has compounded the problem.
Now, as scientists debate whether Amazon deforestation is to blame, residents across São Paulo complain of regular shutoffs to their water supply while the state government and the water company deny that rationing is going on.
And despite rain in recent days, the water level keeps falling. Cantareira System reservoirs are at a tenth of their normal level. And a full summer’s rainfall — if it should occur in the season beginning next month — will not be enough to refill them.
“The situation is serious and demands the collaboration of all,” São Paulo water company SABESP said in an e-mail. “Recuperation of the level of the reservoirs depends on the intensity of the rains.”
But critics say the state government, which controls the water company, played down the crisis because of October’s elections, in which the state’s governor, Geraldo Alckmin, was reelected. Critics say SABESP has failed to keep the population properly informed and to introduce enough effective measures to reduce consumption.
“It is not just the lack of water, which is critical, it is also not knowing how to manage the crisis,” said Carlos de Oliveira of the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute in São Paulo. The institute only recently received key maps outlining the worst-hit areas — but they did not feature streets, just gradients. “Instead of supplying information, SABESP blames the consumer,” he said.
The water company said there is no rationing or rotating of the water supply — just nightly reductions in pressure to cut losses. Nobody believes it.
“There is rationing,” said Paulo Santos, manager of the elegant Condomínio Louvre building in São Paulo’s center, which has 320 apartments and 45 shops. Water is cut off most nights, starting about 10 p.m., Santos said. He maintains supply by keeping a 12,000-gallon tank full and is installing tanks to capture rainfall on a roof. “The residents are worried. They keep asking about the water,” he said. [more]