Igor, 6, sits on a water container, on the roof of his house in Brasilandia slum, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10 February 2015. Nacho Doce / REUTERS

By Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Brad Brooks and Bill Trott
18 February 2016

SÃO PAULO (Reuters) – Water levels at the main reservoir in Brazil's largest city of São Paulo have more than doubled since the El Niño climate phenomenon ended a two-year drought, although industrialists and activists warn fresh shortages may be just a matter of time.

Sufficient rains since late last year have eliminated fears of imminent water rationing but companies and activists say Brazil's most populous region missed an opportunity to shield the population from future droughts by curbing consumption and improving efficiency.

The epic drought caused panic in South America's largest city. Crimped farm and factory output threatened an ailing economy while residents hoarding rain water in canisters spurred an outbreak of mosquito-borne dengue and possibly the more recent scare of Zika.

Utility Sabesp, owned by São Paulo state, is piping in water from other reservoirs and is keeping pump pressure low in the morning, leaving some residents with dry taps. It also is considering higher fees for industry to fund infrastructure investments.

But industries, which use 30 percent of São Paulo's water, are turning to private wells, recycling water and capturing rainwater to avoid relying on the network, according to Anicia Pio, head of São Paulo state industry association Fiesp's environmental department.

"Industry works on the mid- to long-term … We do not believe (Sabesp's) actions are sufficient to achieve water security," she said. "This is cyclical. It happened in 2004, it happened in 2014. We don't have a crystal ball to know when it might happen again."

Chemical firm Rhodia, controlled by Belgium's Solvay, was forced to halt some factories in 2014 due to low river levels. Rationing in interior Sao Paulo forced the world's largest beef producer, JBS SA, to furlough 800 workers.

Rains brought relief late last year and water in São Paulo's largest reservoir, Cantareira, which provides for nearly 6 million people, rose above pump level for the first time in a year and a half. Sabesp therefore no longer has to rely on muddy technical reserves to supply South America's business hub.

Restrictions on irrigation were lifted in November and record sugarcane and coffee crops in the southeast are forecast this year.

With above-average rainfall in January, water levels in Cantareira have more than doubled from 20 percent capacity on Dec. 1 to 48.6 percent on Thursday.

But the state that accounts for one-third of Brazil's economy remains vulnerable to a new crisis because of several factors. Water or energy rationing is considered a long-term risk in a country that relies mostly on hydro-power for electricity.

São Paulo, a metropolitan area of 20 million people, was criticized by U.N. experts for losing 31 percent of its treated water to leaks and theft, compared to an average 16 percent in the United States.

That is still below the 40 percent national average in Brazil. Home to the world's largest fresh water supply, Brazil has not previously had much reason for conservation.

Now, climate experts say droughts and other extreme weather are more likely because of climate change, pollution and deforestation of Brazil's Atlantic and Amazon rain forests. [more]

Drought ends in Brazil's Sao Paulo but future still uncertain



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