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Sao Paulo's looming water crisis

South America’s largest city is in the middle of a historic crisis, but politicians seem unwilling to deal with it.
Last modified: 13 May 2014 21:03

In Ana Britto’s home, they don’t waste one drop of water.

“If I have soapy water from washing clothes, I will re-use it to wash the floors in the house,” Mrs Britto told Al Jazeera. “If I have other dirty water from doing dishes, I’ll save it and use it to water my plants. We all have to do our part to conserve.”

For now, Mrs Britto’s water-saving strategy is being done voluntarily, but perhaps not for long.

Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city and the host of the opening match of the World Cup in less than a month, is in the middle of a historic water crisis. But local politicians seem to not want anything to do with it. (More on that later.)

To see the extent of the shortage, you have to go to Vargem, a city of about 10,000, about a two-hour drive outside Sao Paulo. It’s here where you can see the Cantareira, part of the sprawling network of water reservoirs that feeds the city.

On the day I visited last week the reservoir was at 9.8 percent capacity. On the very same day the year prior, it was at 62 percent capacity.

Today, the banks of the reservoir are little more than a dry moonscape of cracked earth.

It’s all been caused by a lack of rain (the area has received only about 25 percent of its historic averages), combined with few water saving measures being taken in Sao Paulo.

Things have gotten so bad that two months ago the state started building an emergency piping system that can access what they call a "dead volume" reserve of water underneath the surface. It should provide another 15 percent of water, enough to last an estimated six months.

Such measures are necessary since the reservoir feeds into Sao Paulo, a city with a metro population of 11.8 million people, and a metro region of nearly 19 million.

Even if it starts to rain above the average tomorrow – which is a big "if" – experts say it will take between five years (best-case scenario) and 20 years (worst-case scenario) for the reservoir to fully recover.

Despite doomsday scenarios, it’s highly unlikely the water shortage will affect Sao Paulo hosting World Cup matches. Tourists have nothing to worry about in terms of having water in their hotel, because the real problems will hit after the football tournament is over.

Even with the situation critical, Governor Geraldo Alckmin has continually said Sao Paulo won’t be forced into water rationing. Why? It’s an election year.

First, some background: Brasilia might be the capital of Brazil, but Sao Paulo is where Brazil’s heavyweight politics are played. Two out of every 10 Brazilians lives in the state, and in every election for president the past 25 years the top candidates were from Sao Paulo.

The powerful state – with a nearly $700bn GPD, equal to the Netherlands – has been governed almost without interruption by the centre-right main opposition party, the PSDB.

Alckmin is a key national figure in the party, and a 2006 failed presidential candidate.

The city of Sao Paulo is currently governed by Fernando Haddad, a young, urban progressive from the ruling Workers Party. He’s being groomed for higher office. 

Neither man wants to lay claim to the water shortage, and Haddad is quick to point out it’s a state, not city, issue.

If Alckmin declared water rationing, it would be seen as a huge defeat of failed water policies for his party in the most important state in national elections.

Not declaring rationing is seen as irresponsible by Paula Costa, a water environmental analyst.

“We need to declare water rationing right now so people start saving water,” Costa said. “It’ll be difficult, yes, but it is necessary so the little water we have we can use in a sustainable way.”

Meanwhile, back at the reservoir, the day after I filmed my story, the water levels dropped to 8 percent.

It is a crisis that has gone from bad to worse, but few lawmakers seem like they want to deal with it right now. But they likely will be forced to at some point even if it’s once the taps run dry.

- With additional reporting by Maria Elena Romero @MarBrazil