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Confusion and Frustration Abound as São Paulo's Water Crisis Worsens

A drastic rationing regime that would provide two days of water followed by four to five days without could be just around the corner for millions of residents.
Photo by Sharon Rong

How long can emergency water supplies safely be stored at home? Do you need to add chlorine? Does drinking water really have a shelf life?

A dire water shortage crisis has become a daily reality for millions of people in and around São Paulo, where it is surprisingly difficult to find answers to these suddenly commonplace questions.

Roughly 40 percent of the city's residents receive water only at certain hours of the day, while tens of thousands of other households are forced to go without water for days on end. The drought has even affected celebrations of the country's most important holiday festival, carnival. At least six municipalities have canceled their festivities. Orlândia, a city four hours north of São Paulo, withheld investing in its party to construct a badly needed water storage facility.


Now an even more drastic rationing regime ("rodízio"), which would provide two days of water followed by four to five days without, could be just around the corner.

Severe year-long drought in São Paulo threatens water supply for eight million. Read more here.

According to São Paulo State Governor Geraldo Alckmin, the rodízio will be triggered if depleted reservoirs do not recover to a certain degree (yet to be determined) by the end of March. Emergency works are underway to make it technically feasible, including installing direct connections from primary water pipes to hospitals, bypassing local distribution stations.

Part of the Cantareira reservoir system, which supplies water to some 6 million people in São Paulo. (Photo via Midia NINJA/

Consequently, as the city's residents scramble to prepare for this prospect, they are collecting millions of gallons of water and storing them in homes and businesses across São Paulo. Unlicensed artesian wells have been sunk citywide, and rainwater collection has become a hot topic on the Brazilian internet, particularly on social media. Yet official guidance on how best to proceed under these extreme circumstances is perplexingly hard to come by.

How much water is it safe and fair to store per person? What can rainwater be safely used for, and how can it be treated to remove pollutants, which in São Paulo can include particles of heavy metal, as well as pathogens from pigeon and rat excrement in gutters and on roofs? How should people go about cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, the sick, and the elderly when the water fails to return three to five days after the taps run dry? How should an accumulation of urine and excrement in toilets that cannot be flushed be dealt with?


VICE News tried discovering any such instructions that might have been directed at citizens, whether by the state government, by the state water board (SABESP), or by city authorities. We requested and searched for specific directions on the storage of emergency water supplies, the capture and treatment of rainwater, and instructions on how to proceed in the case of a lack of water. We were unable to find any information beyond longstanding health warnings about covering stored water to prevent dengue fever and chikungunya, and long-overdue public campaigns aimed at reducing water waste and usage.

'The authorities need to make plans and then be transparent about them. They need to find ways to guarantee essential supplies of drinking water, in particular to the poorest — those most in need, and least able to gain access to clean water.'

President Dilma Rousseff's government has so far limited its involvement in the water crisis — or "hydric collapse", as it is being called — to offering financial support to affected states. However, it was reported last week that the federal Environment Ministry and the Social Communications Secretariat would discuss a potential campaign to encourage the "rational use of water."

The surprising lack of urgency in the face of a crisis that many believe has São Paulo teetering on the brink of calamity was underlined by the fact that the first ever meeting of São Paulo State's Hydro Crisis Committee took place only last Friday. According to information later released by the state and city governments, the committee adjourned with little more than an agreement to ask technicians to develop and present a contingency plan — that is, an emergency plan, for use in extreme circumstances — within 30 days.


A night in São Paulo's crackland. Read more here.

"The authorities are busy trying to communicate the message that everything is under control," Rebecca Lerer of the Aliança Pela Água (Alliance for Water), a group working to address the predicament, told VICE News. "But nobody is willing to pay the political cost involved in taking responsibility for this crisis."

At Friday's meeting, Governor Alckmin and São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad were both at pains to assure voters that everything was being done to avoid water rationing. Yet according to many independent experts on water management, a rationing plan is the only reasonable response to the desperately low levels of the reservoirs that supply the city, no matter how painful it might be.

SABESP itself presented a proposal more than a year ago, in January 2014, for the implementation of a 48-hours-on/24-hours-off rationing regime to head off future shortages, but idea was rejected by Alckmin, who was campaigning for re-election while steadfastly maintaining that there would be no water shortage or rationing. He won a fourth term in October.

Alckmin has so far directed most of his efforts at commissioning an expensive raft of hydro megaprojects over the coming years, aimed at diverting, capturing, and storing more water. Critics argue that these are short-sighted. According to the Alliance for Water, longer-term, environmentally sustainable measures like reforestation (essential in the retention of rainwater), the recuperation of São Paulo's stinking rivers, and the cleansing of the heavily polluted Billings reservoir would help stabilize the situation — though they figure very low on the list of priorities, if at all.


Here's why deforestation in the Amazon may bring more frequent, more intense droughts to Brazil. Read more here.

"Focusing on dams is a political decision on Alckmin's part, one that privileges megaprojects and the hydro industry rather than long-term sustainability," Lerer said.

The Alliance for Water is among various civil society groups that are filling the vacuum of political leadership and information. Others include the Assembléia Estadual da Água (State Water Assembly), formed in December, and the Cisterna Já (Tank Now) campaign, which works to inform, educate and encourage the collection of rainwater. Despite the drought exacerbating the water crisis, which is also the product of a growing urban population combined with poor water management, pollution, and profligate waste over many years, São Paulo is in the middle of its rainy season. Significant amounts of rain can be collected and used for watering plants and basic cleaning — though not for drinking, even if filtered.

Tank Now hosts an open wiki containing comprehensive information on rainwater collection, treatment, and use, and also serves as an informal network connecting those who need help installing a system with people able to do it.

Meanwhile, hoping to achieve the widest possible distribution in booklet form and as a downloadable PDF, the Alliance for Water is preparing to publish a guide titled "Water: A Crisis Survival Manual" early next week. Written by journalist and environmentalist Claudia Visoni, it contains everything from extreme water-saving measures and emergency preparations to instructions on how to wash dishes with just a spoonful of water.


"The guide is a form of environmental education that empowers people to face the situation," Lerer said. "Even if the rodízio doesn't happen this year, it will next year. People need to be prepared."

Rationing an existing supply of water, however inadequate, is one matter, she noted. Managing scarcity or the outright collapse of the water supply is quite another. Only government can determine certain elements, including plans for emergency water provision and public security.

How is the distribution of emergency water supplies to millions of people going to be achieved, under what may be chaotic and unpredictable circumstances? Where is the water in the emergency distribution trucks going come from? Will it be clean?

"The authorities need to make plans and then be transparent about them," Lerer said. "They need to find ways to guarantee essential supplies of drinking water, in particular to the poorest — those most in need, and least able to gain access to clean water."

Emergency distribution has to be organized, and it has to be safe. "People need to be reassured," she added. "They need to know that they are going to be taken care of."

Follow Claire Rigby on Twitter: @claire_rigby Photo via Flickr