An aerial view of the Atibainha dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir, during the drought in Nazare Paulista, São Paulo state, November 2014. Photo: Nacho Doce / Reuters

By Marussia Whately and Rebeca Lerer
11 February 2015

São Paulo (The Guardian) – It should be the rainy season. Instead São Paulo state is experiencing a third consecutive year with soaring temperatures and rainfall patterns well below historic records.

The main water reservoirs are operating at their lowest capacity. The Cantareira reservoir system, which serves more than nine million people in the state, is only 5% full. At the Alto Tietê reservoir network, which supplies three million people in greater São Paulo, water levels are below 15%.

Simple calculations indicate that given the current level of consumption versus the predicted raining patterns there is only enough water on the system to last four to six months. That means the water could run out before the next rainy season starts in November. State officials recently announced a potential rationing program of five days without water and two days with, in case the February and March rains do not refill the reservoirs.

This extreme climate scenario, combined with a series of management flaws, political negligence, and a culture of waste and pollution, is bringing the largest metropolitan region of Brazil to the brink of collapse.

Since 2013, after decades of warnings about misguided development policies and destructive land use practices, experts and civil society organisations have been calling for increasingly strong measures to reduce water consumption to keep the minimum secure levels for supply reservoirs. The calls have been ignored by the state government – the system’s main operator – and federal and municipal authorities turned a blind eye to the severity of the situation.

A sign reading 'Don’t jump in the water' at the dried up part of the Guarapiranga reservoir in November 2014. Photo: Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

The government took a few small steps in early 2014, such as offering a discount on water bills for people who voluntarily reduced their consumption. It also increased supply from the Billings and Guarapiranga reservoirs, but as these sources receive most of the urban waste from São Paulo, the water needs to be carefully tested and treated to be adequate for human consumption, adding to the complexity of securing safe water supply during the drought.

The government’s main initiative has been to reduce pressure on the distribution network, so that it pumps less water through the system. As the measure was not officially recognised by leaders or the media, people were unprepared to live without drinkable water for a couple of days when the supply glitches started to happen. Taken by the population as a de facto rationing, the lack of transparency about the times and places affected by pressure reduction caused more problems and increased distrust among São Paulo’s citizens.

The recovery measures adopted so far account for a 22% reduction on the water volume extracted from reservoirs. Experts, however, advise that the reduction should be around 50% to sustain the minimal conditions needed for the system. […]

Despite the relative gains in poverty reduction over the last decade, the imminent collapse of the water supply system of the richest region in Brazil shows that basic development structures have yet to be addressed and fundamental human rights have yet to be secured in this country. Millions of people from the poorest communities have entered the consumer market, but their access to housing, sanitation, clean water, citizen security and transport remain unguarded. [more]

Brazil drought: water rationing alone won't save São Paulo

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