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Water crisis in Brazil: Why the largest city in the Americas is drying out

(Credit: Thomas Hobbs/Flickr)

São Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, is facing its greatest water crisis in almost a century.

Authorities announced that the water shortage had became critical at the height of Brazil’s dry season in August, according to the Los Angeles Times, when the water levels in the main reservoirs of Cantareira and Alto Tiete dropped below 17 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively, of their full capacity.

Out of São Paulo’s 20 million residents, almost half depend on these reservoirs for daily water use. These 9 million Brazilians are now forced to ration, according to NPR, while conservation groups predict that there may only be enough water for the city’s residents to last five more months.

And São Paulo is not the only city suffering a dry spell. The entire southeastern region of Brazil, including the country’s second largest city of Rio de Janeiro, is facing similar trouble. The water shortage has been a shock to Brazil, a country that has been called “the Saudi Arabia of Water” for having as much water as the Middle Eastern country has oil.

Starved for a fundamental human necessity, some residents of São Paulo are coping with the water shortage by drilling wells and buying expensive water from tank trucks, according to CRI. Others are fleeing for other regions of the country. The vast majority of the residents of Sao Paulo and Rio, however, do not have the means to buy their water from vendors or relocate their families, and they suffer as a result.

Most agree that two of the main reasons for the water shortages are a rising population and higher demand for water. São Paulo is a megacity with daily water use at 180 litres per person, a rate 50 percent higher than that of Germany, and was not built to accommodate this need for water. The city suffers from poor planning and failing infrastructure, with the national and local government falling behind in upgrades of pipes, dams and transmission lines, according to the Guardian. A government report shows that nearly 40 percent of tap water is wasted due to leaky pipes, fraud and illegal access.

The São Paulo state government has responded to the crisis with multimillion-dollar emergency construction projects to provide quick relief. Unfortunately, these projects experienced delays and other problems that ultimately made them useless to the millions of people suffering from the drought.

Just when it seemed that the situation could not get any worse, the recent collapse of two dams at an iron ore mine on Nov. 5 cut off drinking water completely for a quarter of a million people in the São Paulo region. The collapse saturated waterways downstream with a toxic orange sediment that environmentalists fear could destroy the ecosystem for years to come.

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff compared the damage to the 2010 oil spill by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico, according to Reuters, and Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira called it an “environmental catastrophe.”

Nine people were killed in the disaster, and more than 500 Brazilians have been displaced from their homes as a result of the flooding and mud.

But the problem in Brazil is much bigger than overcrowding, or even large-scale toxic waste spills.

Satellite data from NASA show that the southeast corner of the country has been losing 56 trillion liters of water annually for the past three years. Recent studies suggest this lack of rainfall may be linked to deforestation in the Amazon.

Alexandre Uezu, an ecologist with Sao Paulo’s Ecological Research Institute, explains that trees in the Amazon absorb water through their roots. As trees “sweat” through transpiration, they transfer moisture into the atmosphere, which then falls as rain over the Amazon or is carried away on air currents known as aerial rivers.

These flying rivers of water vapor are what bring life-giving rainfall to the peripheries of the continent. But according to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the forest is now degraded or destroyed.

“In normal years, most of the rainfall feeding the Southeast is carried from the Amazon through the aerial rivers,” said Antonio Nobre, senior researcher at the National Institute of Amazonian Research, reported Carbon Brief.

“The link of deforestation with reduced rainfall within the Amazon is well-established. One needs only to connect the dots.”

But deforestation in Brazil is still allowed by law. The country’s science minister, Aldo Rebelo, not only denies the existence of climate change but has declared the entire environmental movement as “nothing less, in its geopolitical essence, than the bridgehead of imperialism.”

The water crisis is a multifaceted problem with no simple solution. For many Brazilians, the outlook is not promising.

But the public’s response to the crisis has so far been proactive. Brazilians have risen in incredible numbers in strong opposition to the destruction of the Amazon, leading to a recent push to pass a Zero Deforestation bill just last month.

The bill, co-signed by 1.4 million Brazilians, ignited a critical discussion for Brazil. The enormous amount of support for the bill came from all sectors of society with the mutual ambition to start viewing and treating the forest as a vital resource for the climate, the country and the planet.

Others are coming up with new ways of finding water, despite the shortage, and inspiring their communities to stay optimistic and do the same.

Paulistano jazz musician Vinicius Pereira and his group, Movimiento Cisternas Já, have been installing cisterns in private homes around São Paulo, according to Time. The group has already installed 36 cisterns, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, which collect rainwater to be used for cleaning and flushing toilets.

“Water is life,” Pereira said. “It’s time for us to realize that we have to keep it, and to treat it as the most valuable thing we have.”


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at