By Jon Gerberg
13 October 2015
(TIME) – The biggest city in the Western hemisphere is facing its greatest water crisis in over 80 years — and climate change is only part of the problem.
Millions of residents in São Paulo, Brazil face daily water shutoffs unless the city manages its water better. It is not only a problem of drought. The city of 20 million is plagued by failing infrastructure across the city, and it has been unable to deliver the water it does have to residents in need. Without major changes to the city’s infrastructure and planning, commentators say the crisis is bound to continue.
The crisis is most acutely felt in the Periferia — the generally poorer districts on the outskirts of the city. These oft-neglected neighborhoods, many of which sit at higher altitudes in the hills around the city, require more water pressure to reach their tanks. And even on days when it is raining outside, the pipes in the Periferia are often dry.
On top of it all, São Paulo has now suffered two of the driest seasons on record, back-to-back.
The Cantareira reservoirs, which supply water to over 9 million residents, were operating at 12% capacity in October. The water level has fallen so low that large parts of the surface of the reservoirs are dried mud.
“This is what we would call a real emergency,” said Paulo Dallari, deputy secretary for the São Paulo mayor’s office. “The reservoirs are much lower than they used to be. It is raining much lower than the average. So we might have some difficult situations in the near future.”
Dallari is now working to expand the emergency water reserves around São Paulo – especially in facilities like hospitals and schools, which he points out are particularly vulnerable in situations of extreme water shortage.
Some neighborhoods and surrounding towns have fared worse than others. The outlying city of Itu saw massive protests last year – sometimes turning violent – when the city tried to cut them off from the water network entirely.
Many São Paulo residents have had daily 12-hour water cutoffs over the last year. But Dallari points out that while wealthier residents have been able to build water tanks and purchase water from private sources, the poorest residents can’t do that.
Residents of the indigenous Gaurani community, who live in the Periferia town of Itakupe, complained that the little amount of water that flows to them is a milky, white color.
“When there was no water the children went thirsty,” says Sonia Aramirim, a Gaurani teacher from Itakupe. “Many of them would get dehydrated. Some women had urinary problems from not drinking enough water.”
In the south of the city lies the Billings reservoir, which holds 20% more water than the Cantareira. Environmentalists point out that this could be a better source of water for the city, but it is polluted. Over one million people now live by its banks, but there is no proper sewage system so waste flows into the reservoir.
“There are two extremes: on one side a rural reservoir that has a serious deforestation problem, on the other side an urban reservoir that has a pollution problem,” says Marussia Whately, coordinator of Aliança pela Água, an alliance of 30 NGO’s brought together to devise and propose solutions to the city’s crisis. [more]