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What Can Canadian Cities Learn From São Paulo’s Water Crisis?

Canada and Brazil both have some of the planet's largest freshwater reserves. But as millions are now without running water in Sao Paulo, it might be time for both countries to confront the myth of endless water.

One of São Paolo's water reservoirs. Photo via Flickr user Clairex

Fun fact: I grew up thinking Canada has the most freshwater in the world. Not true. That title belongs to Brazil—home of the Amazon and hundreds more rivers.

Yet São Paulo, Brazil's biggest city, is bracing for a full-scale water disaster this summer. The megacity's 20 million residents are already facing daily tap cut-offs thanks to years of poor management and a changing climate. With the city's main reservoir now at five percent, São Paulo is way short of the water it needs to last until the next rainy season in November. If uncharacteristically dry weather patterns continue into April, city officials have confirmed a rationing program could limit running water to just two days per week.

What got the megacity into such deep trouble? When I put this question to my friend and colleague Pedro Inoue in São Paulo, he tells me a myth of abundance left the city high and dry. "The more you have, the less you care," he explains. "With many natural resources here, there's not a culture to take care." Experts point to many contributing factors over the decades: large-scale deforestation shifted weather patterns, irrigation-intensive agriculture drained the water table, and rapid population growth coupled with political corruption added more stress to a fragile system.

Inoue tells me his tap usually runs dry about one in the afternoon, and doesn't come back on until seven the next morning. After hearing of the city's water rationing plans, his family is hatching an exit strategy—just in case things get really bad. "When you mess with water, you mess with people's dignity," he says. "You can't cook, you can't wash your dishes, you can't bathe. The whole city stops, pretty much."

Some good news: Canadian cities aren't likely to face a water crisis of such magnitude anytime soon. "We have much greater access and smaller populations," says Brian Mergelas, CEO of WaterTAP in Ontario.

But São Paulo's collapse does raise a few red flags for some water researchers and campaigners here in Canada, where a similar "water rich" narrative and natural resource-based economy could pose risks down the road. VICE Canada spoke with nearly a dozen water experts in different parts of the country to find out Canada's most pressing water issues and what Canadian cities can learn from São Paulo's mistakes.

For starters, Oliver Brandes, co-director of the Water Sustainability Project at the University of Victoria, tells me Canada's "water-rich" narrative needs to be debunked. With the vast majority of Canadians living along the southern border, some areas of BC, Alberta, and southern Ontario are approaching water-supply limits. "We're water-tight where people live," he says.

Made even more volatile by climate change, water issues are not adequately studied and recorded in Canada, Brandes adds. "We don't know how much we have, who is using it, how much they use, how it's changing," he says. "How can we make evidence-based decisions without a sophisticated monitoring and reporting approach?"

Canada's top water threats span from tar sands pollution in the Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers to massive algae blooms in Quebec and Manitoba. Here in British Columbia, near-record low snow atop Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland mountains could mean municipal water shortages in the late summer season.

This winter, Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver mountains have received only 30 percent of average snow cover. Mountain snowmelt feeds into streams, rivers, and city reservoirs, acting as a buffer between rainfalls.

"I've never seen it quite like this," says Mark Angelo, former chair of BCIT's Rivers Institute. After the sunniest February in recent memory, Vancouver's North Shore mountains don't have any visible snow. With two weeks until the first day of spring, Angelo says salmon and other fish could suffer from low rivers.

"We're very close to a record low snowpack. I think on one hand there's a chance things could improve a bit, but every passing week it becomes a bit more unlikely."

City officials say it's too early to tell if the missing snow will result in water conservation advisories. Metro Vancouver spokesperson Don Bradley said the lack of snow on the mountains was "unfortunate for skiers" but "there's absolutely no need for concern." Bradley said rainfall in the next months will also increase reserves. He pointed to the success of the city's revised lawn sprinkling regulations in reducing water demand in the summer.

Both British Columbia and Ontario still value water based on the fact Canada has a lot of it. In BC, it costs Nestle $2.25 to extract one million litres of groundwater. In Ontario, the same amount of water costs Nestle $3.71. Council of Canadians water campaigner Emma Lui questions the valuation, calling on the province to prioritize home users first, especially in times of drought.

Both Lui and Brandes point to a need for a national water policy in Canada. In general, the feds haven't done much for water in the last decade. But in the wake of São Paulo's crisis, a big lesson for Canadian cities is we're in a rapidly-changing environment, and a "wait-and-see" approach won't cut it—even for water superpowers.

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