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Severe Year-Long Drought in São Paulo Threatens Water Supply for Eight Million

The state water utility has undertaken massive drilling operations in an effort to find new freshwater sources, but a long term solution is needed.
Image via AP/Andre Penner

São Paulo is experiencing its worst drought in over eight decades. Its largest reservoir, known as the Cantareira system, is on the brink of running dry, putting eight million of São Paulo's 20 million residents at risk of losing their primary water supply.

Peak capacity at Cantareira is 264 billion gallons. But after a year without adequate rainfall and scorching hot temperatures that have baked the landscape, capacity has fallen as low as three percent.


"What are we supposed to do without water? We can't shower, wash dishes, do laundry. I have a sink full of dishes because there's no water coming out of the tap," Flávia de Souza Carvalho, 53, a housewife from São Paulo told VICE News.

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Sabesp, the state water utility, has taken drastic measures. It has dipped into an extra 10.6 billion gallons, available under the Cantareira, by pumping it out from deep below ground with three kilometers of specially built pipeline.

Another 28 billion gallons is being extracted from deep under the reservoir by a second emergency pumping system and water from five other reservoirs are being pumped into the Cantareira.

The state has announced it will send 20 tanker trucks to Itu, a city of 165,000 residents who say they have been hit the hardest by water rationing. The shortage has been affecting them for at least eight months, with residents saying they have had to go days without water, and has led to protests and confrontation with police. The tanker trucks will cost the government $2 million reais (US $815,000) for one month of emergency use, with the possibility of renewing the contract for another 30 days, if necessary.

'Environmental education and awareness needs to be improved.'

On October 15th Sadesp President Dilma Pena said without heavy rainfall water supplies would run out in November. The agency, seeming to want to head off a controversy, issued a statement the following day saying water would not run out in November.


An audio recording of Pena speaking at a Sabesp meeting earlier this year, however, was released on Friday by Brazil's largest daily newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, in which she stated that it was "a mistake" to withhold the state's dire water situation from the public for so long.

"Citizens, save water. That should have been repeated in the media, but we have to follow instructions. We have superiors and this was not the guidance given," she says in the recording. "It's a mistake. I am absolutely sure of it and I tell people who I talk to about this issue, even my superiors."

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Marcos Heil Costa, a professor and researcher in atmosphere-biosphere interactions at the Federal University of Viçosa, agrees that earlier awareness could have saved São Paulo from ending up in its current state.

"Environmental education and awareness needs to be improved. Not many people economized on water at the beginning of the drought," Costa told VICE News. "If we had saved water since the beginning of the year, we would be in a far better situation."

Reports that Pena has been asked to resign have been circulating in local media this week, citing comments by São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, who has received harsh criticism for his handling of the water crisis. According to Folha de S.Paulo, Alckmin has asked her to stay until at least December.


Alckmin had denied water rationing was underway. But as news reports emerged of people turning on their taps and being unable to draw water, he could no longer deny it had begun. The City of São Paulo has seen water pressure reduced at night and residents who cut back on use by at least 20 percent receive deductions on their monthly water bill. In some neighborhoods, and in other surrounding cities, water has been completely cut off for hours or days at a time.

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Reelected at the beginning of the month with almost 60 percent of the vote, Alckmin has been accused of remaining silent on the matter in order to win at the polls.

"If the drought continues, residents will face more dramatic water shortages in the short term," Vicente Andreu, president of Brazil's National Water Agency told reporters in São Paulo earlier this week. "If it doesn't rain, we run the risk that the region will have a collapse like we've never seen before," he later told state lawmakers, according to Bloomberg.

In order to avoid such a collapse, Costa suggests taking a look back at Brazil's 2001 energy crisis, which was also water-related. He notes that people adapted their habits and used less energy per capita in order to help the electricity system adjust and depend less on rainwaters.

"What we need to do now is something similar," Costa said. "[We need to] adapt our consumption patterns and our reservoir system to this type of weather event, which everything indicates will repeat itself in the future."

Follow Jill Langlois on Twitter: @JillLanglois