Taps run dry in S_o Paulo drought

Parts of the Jaguari Reservoir, the highest in what is called the Cantareira System, were so dried out that plants ha...

Parts of the Jaguari Reservoir, the highest in what is called the Cantareira System, were so dried out that plants had begun growing on the rocks around a blue pleasure boat, marooned near a wooden landing dock hundreds of yards from any water. A stagnant brown puddle did not trouble the sluice gates of a dam.

Boat jetties stretched forlornly across banks of red mud from the luxury houses that used to sit by the water__s edge in the adjoining Jacare_ Reservoir. Although there was more water in two other lower-level reservoirs, there were also dried-up inlets and red, exposed banks, and the Atibaia River was in places just a muddy eddy.

The biggest city in South America has been stuck in a spiraling water crisis since the summer rains failed to fall last December and January __ the driest summer in 84 years. An exceptionally dry winter since then has compounded the problem.

Now, as scientists debate whether Amazon deforestation is to blame, residents across S_o Paulo complain of regular shutoffs to their water supply while the state government and the water company deny that rationing is going on.

And despite rain in recent days, the water level keeps falling. Cantareira System reservoirs are at a tenth of their normal level. And a full summer__s rainfall __ if it should occur in the season beginning next month __ will not be enough to refill them.

__The situation is serious and demands the collaboration of all,__ S_o Paulo water company _SABESP said in an e-mail. __Recuperation of the level of the reservoirs depends on the intensity of the rains.__

But critics say the state government, which controls the water company, played down the crisis because of October__s elections, in which the state__s governor, Geraldo Alckmin, was reelected. Critics say SABESP has failed to keep the population properly informed and to introduce enough effective measures to reduce consumption.

__It is not just the lack of water, which is critical, it is also not knowing how to manage the crisis,__ said Carlos de Oliveira of the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institute in S_o Paulo. The institute only recently received key maps outlining the worst-hit areas __ but they did not feature streets, just gradients. __Instead of supplying information, SABESP blames the consumer,__ he said.

The water company said there is no rationing or rotating of the water supply __ just nightly reductions in pressure to cut losses. Nobody believes it.

__There is rationing,__ said Paulo Santos, manager of the elegant Condom_nio Louvre building in S_o Paulo__s center, which has 320 apartments and 45 shops. Water is cut off most nights, starting about 10 p.m., Santos said. He maintains supply by keeping a 12,000-gallon tank full and is installing tanks to capture rainfall on a roof. __The residents are worried. They keep asking about the water,__ he said.

SABESP introduced a discount in February for customers who reduced consumption, and 76 percent are taking advantage. The company__s representatives have visited 30,000 apartment buildings, and eight advertising campaigns have been launched to encourage customers to reduce consumption.

Nine months after the crisis began, the company presented a $1.3 billion infrastructure proposal to the federal government __to guarantee supply security.__ In the next few days, it will begin pumping the second quota of __dead water__ __ billions of gallons that lie beneath the usual capture pumps in the Cantareira System. Two water-recycling facilities and 29 new reserves have just been announced.

__These works that are being done now should already be ready,__ said Benedito Braga, president of the World Water Council in S_o Paulo. __The problem is cultural. Brazilians leave everything to the last minute. Only when the situation is absolutely critical do they start to make arrangements, economize water.__

The worst drought in a century is principally to blame, Braga said. But measures such as these, taken in time, could have alleviated it, he said.

S_o Paulo is an endless, chaotic sprawl that has grown, unchecked, for decades. With a population of 19 million in its metropolitan area, it is now facing water-supply problems that U.S. cities dealt with decades ago, said Richard Palmer, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts.

Palmer visited Brazil in May. __I was very surprised at the confidence that SABESP showed in being able to manage this crisis without involving more people,__ he said. __I couldn__t imagine another international major city allowing itself to get to such a precarious point without having introduced water use restrictions.__

Antonio Nobre, a researcher at Brazil__s National Institute for Space Research and its National Institute for Amazonian Research, wrote in an e-mail that deforestation might be connected to the drought.

In October, Nobre published a scientific assessment report, which argued that clear-cutting has altered the Amazon forest__s climate __ as evidenced by droughts in 2005 and 2010. The forest functions as a __biotic pump,__ it said, channeling moisture down to S_o Paulo via __aerial rivers__ that bounce off the Andes wall.

But Augusto Pereira, a professor at the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of S_o Paulo, blamed an area of high pressure that formed over the South Atlantic for this and earlier droughts. __This is recurring,__ he said.

In the bare, concrete S_o Jos_ Oper_rio church hall in Jardim Damasceno, on the northern edge of S_o Paulo, residents who gathered after a fitness class on a recent day said their water supply failed regularly __ for some at night, for others in the day. Outlying, lower-income areas like this have been hardest hit by dry taps. And Jardim Damasceno is a chaotic jumble of poverty __ the breeze-block shacks of Brazilian slums teetering over concrete housing blocks, near a small square dominated by the drug trade.

Those living higher up in the favela fared worst.

__It is too much,__ said Euriba Alves, 71. __Water is life.__ Her neighbor Josefa Olegario, 70, who runs a small bar, said her tap water often flowed out white and milky. __I let it settle a bit,__ she said. Roberta da Silva, 39, a health visitor, cut her water bills by reducing consumption, but she scoffed at SABESP__s insistence that there is no rationing. __It is a reality,__ she said. __They know.__

In her neat, one-floor house beside the church, Eliete Silva, 64, remembered the torrential floods that swept away her house eight years ago, for the second time. __The water came in the window,__ she said. __It used to rain much more.__ Now the water does not flow, even through the pipes, at night, said her daughter Edna, 32. She was receptive to the idea that Amazon deforestation could be a factor. But she blamed the government. __They did not take measures, it got to the point it did, and the people suffer,__ she said.

Washington Post | By Dom Phillips

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