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Sao Paulo: Drowning without water

By Mae Bowen 12 percent of the world’s freshwater flows in Brazil.[1] And yet, Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, is currently facing a drought the likes of which have not been seen for 80 years.[2] Approximately eight million of Sao Paulo’s 20 million residents are in danger of losing their main source of potable water. The largest reservoir in the region, the Cantareira, which can hold 264 million gallons of water at capacity, is quickly running dry, with a recent drop to a mere three percent of capacity. [3] As officials reach deeper and deeper into ground water supplies to stall the crisis, it is extremely important that policymakers and the public understand, in both an historical and environmental context, why this problem occurred in the first place, while beginning to consider long-term solutions.

A severe lack of water in Sao Paulo and Brazil as a whole threatens multiple groups, from farmers and housewives to manufacturers and politicians. Sao Paulo being Brazil’s richest state means that this water crisis is particularly threatening to the entire country’s economic success.[4] The nation’s most profitable industries all require water, whether that be direct use or, most critically, for the purpose of supplying energy through its hydroelectric dams.[5] Looking at this crisis from an economic standpoint can also help significantly in changing general consumption patterns. The government has already pursued incentives for those households which use less water, but an equal focus on imposing fines for those families who continue to use too much is necessary for results.[6] Average citizens are experiencing blackouts and other issues due to a lack of electricity and the lack of water available is having a noticeable impact on crop yields throughout the country.[7] Sao Paulo’s poor have been the most affected by the crisis, lacking adequate water for basic necessities like washing, cooking, and drinking. Their distress has manifested into small-scale protests,[8] which warn of larger disruptions in the future should the issue fester.

According to the World Resources Institute, there are three main reasons why Sao Paulo and Brazil in general are facing this water crisis. First, there is a discrepancy in the distribution of population density and water availability. While nearly 50 percent of Brazil’s fresh water lies in the Amazon River basin, a mere four percent of its population actually resides there.[9] Conversely, the rapid growth of coastal populations has led to ever increasing water stress in mega-cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.[10]

Another important factor is the high seasonal variability Brazil experiences. With such a volatile climate, Brazil can have an extremely wet year followed by an extremely dry one, or striking differences in precipitation within the same calendar year. This necessitates the storage of water from wetter cycles to make up for possible droughts in the future.[11]

Recently Brazil has been experiencing an increase in inter-annual variability, with stark differences in climate patters in a single year. The Water Resources Institute posits that this increase in variability can be directly linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Generally speaking, the Amazon rainforest acts as a giant water pump, carrying water up and over to the central and southern areas of the country. These “flying rivers,” as described by Antonio Nobre, a scientist at Brazil’s Center for Earth Systems Science, are crucial to irrigating an area of land currently responsible for 70 percent of South America’s GNP. [12]

While the history of natural resource use in Brazil certainly played a large role in this current crisis, environmental awareness and education could have prevented the drought from having such a severe impact. Marcos Heil Costa, a researcher in atmosphere-biosphere interactions at the Federal University of Viçosa, insists that earlier awareness could have saved São Paulo from ending up in its current state. [13] If citizens had been made fully aware of the problem at hand and adequately persuaded to save water, the reservoirs may have been able to be maintained at more sustainable levels.

Politics also added to the problem with Sao Paulo’s governor, Geraldo Alckmin, receiving harsh criticism for his handling of the drought, particularly for his decision to hide the magnitude of the problem from the people and to ration their water in secrecy.[14] His desire to win reelection trumped the duty of transparency, which has had negative consequences across the board.

Costa suggests that government officials and the people of Brazil should look back to the solution of a similar energy crisis in 2001 by adapting their consumption habits toward a sustainable level.[15] Understanding that climate change and variability will only increase the chances of a similar crisis happening again is key to persuading the public to think proactively about their water use.

In an attempt to begin working on remedying this crisis and preventing future occurrence, concerned NGOs have formed an “Alliance for Water,” to look into short and long-term solutions.[16] However, this work alone will not be enough to prevent further crisis. Moving forward, proper management of Brazil’s water resources, or the lack thereof, will figure prominently in the future of is energy, agricultural, and industrial performance and the future of its people. Everyone from water management officials in Brazil to the general population must learn from past mistakes and move toward a more sustainable future, if they ever hope to stay afloat.

[1] Maddocks, Andrew, Tien Shiao, and Sarah Mann. "3 Maps Help Explain Sao Paulo, Brazil's Water Crisis." World Resources Institute. November 4, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/3-maps-help-explain-são-paulo-brazil’s-water-crisis.

[2] Langlois, Jill. "Severe Year-Long Drought in Sao Paulo Threatens Water Supply for Eight Million." Vice News. October 26, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. https://news.vice.com/article/severe-year-long-drought-in-so-paulo-threatens-water-supply-for-eight-million.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Davies, Wyre. "Brazil Drought: Sao Paulo Sleepwalking into Water Crisis." BBC News. November 7, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29947965.

[5] Ibid.

[6] "Reservoir Hogs." The Economist. December 20, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21636782-government-responded-late-drought-brazils-industrial-heartland-reservoir-hogs.

[7] Watts, Jonathan. "Brazil's Worst Drought in History Prompts Protests and Blackouts." The Guardian. January 23, 2015. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/brazil-worst-drought-history.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Maddocks, Andrew, Tien Shiao, and Sarah Mann. "3 Maps Help Explain Sao Paulo, Brazil's Water Crisis." World Resources Institute. November 4, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/3-maps-help-explain-são-paulo-brazil’s-water-crisis.

[10] Maddocks, Andrew, Tien Shiao, and Sarah Mann. "3 Maps Help Explain Sao Paulo, Brazil's Water Crisis." World Resources Institute. November 4, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/3-maps-help-explain-são-paulo-brazil’s-water-crisis.

[11]Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Langlois, Jill. "Severe Year-Long Drought in Sao Paulo Threatens Water Supply for Eight Million." Vice News. October 26, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. https://news.vice.com/article/severe-year-long-drought-in-so-paulo-threatens-water-supply-for-eight-million.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Maddocks, Andrew, Tien Shiao, and Sarah Mann. "3 Maps Help Explain Sao Paulo, Brazil's Water Crisis." World Resources Institute. November 4, 2014. Accessed February 1, 2015. http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/3-maps-help-explain-são-paulo-brazil’s-water-crisis.

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