Apr 02, 2015

The Need for Conservation

Sao Paulo copes with extreme drought conditions

In my December 2014 column, I wrote about water conservation—or, more appropriately, water conservation gone awry. This is pretty familiar territory for me, as I have written many times before about water conservation and where it does and does not makes sense. In that column, I wrote about individuals in Germany with a zeal to conserve water—a zeal that had nothing to do with a real need to conserve. 

The misapplication of their efforts was brought home to me in a recent conversation I had with a colleague from Sao Paulo, who told me about the extreme drought conditions people are facing in the southeast regions of Brazil, where Sao Paulo is located, and how, although they are facing historically low rainfall and reservoir water levels, authorities are doing little to intercede and conserve. It struck me as fascinating that Germans are saving rainwater they do not need, to the extent that it causes flooding, yet in Brazil, where water is sorely needed, little is being done to conserve and reuse water. 

History of Drought

Sao Paulo has been struggling with low rain and water levels for years and reservoir levels rarely have been above 50% of capacity at any time in the past decade. According to data from ANA, the Brazilian National Water Agency, however, inflows into the reservoir system surrounding Sao Paulo this year have been less than one-half of the lowest levels recorded in any other year this decade. Rainy seasons, which traditionally run between November and April, have been poor over the past few years, and, in January of this year, rainfall was less than one-sixth of the historical average. Inflow into the Cantareira Reservoir system that serves Sao Paulo has been historically low; a recent report on the water level in the reservoir shows that it currently is at only 6% of capacity. Yes, 6%. As of this writing, rainfall has remained disappointing. 

The Cantareira is not the only reservoir serving Sao Paulo; the others are at perhaps 15% to 20% of their capacities. This is keeping the water on in the city for the time being, but cannot last without rain. There are time periods and regions in Sao Paulo where water is not running at all, although this has not been acknowledged publicly. 

Sao Paulo residents now also are saving and conserving water, but out of absolute necessity, not civic pride like their counterparts in Germany. Rainwater, bathwater and any other water that can be collected is being saved. Many hardware stores long ago ran out of buckets, tanks and anything else that will hold water.

If the rainfall does not improve and water levels remain as low as they are, water officials are considering implementing a water rationing program that will shut the water off to certain residents of Sao Paulo for as many as five days per week. If implemented, these drastic cutbacks will last through the fall and winter (April to September, in Brazil) and would be lifted if, and only if, the rain that starts in October is sufficient to restore water levels. Based on the past few years, this is unlikely. 

So, where is the rain and where is the water? There certainly is not a shortage of water in Brazil. It has abundant freshwater supplies throughout its forested northern regions, and some experts estimate that Brazil is home to as much as 10% of the world’s freshwater. The problem is that the water is not making it to the more heavily populated urban regions of the southeast.  

Finding an Explanation 

Some experts believe this phenomenon is man-made and is caused by deforestation in the Amazon. The thick forest layer, which typically would have cooled moist air and promoted rainfall as weather systems moved south, has been depleted to the point that the air stays warm and flows past Sao Paulo and out to sea without ever dropping rain. 

We talk a great deal about the water-energy nexus, and it will be a critical factor during this drought. There barely is enough water to keep the hydroelectric dams running and, in a country that relies on hydroelectric for almost 70% of its power, this raises severe economic issues and the daunting prospects of water shortages and rolling brownouts. Brazil’s economy is on the verge of (or already in) recession, and prices have gone up considerably due to the weakness of the currency. 

While low rainfall certainly is a factor, there also is clear evidence of water resource mismanagement. The handling of storm water and wastewater in Sao Paulo is one example. Anyone who has been to the city has seen outflows pouring obviously untreated wastewater and storm water into the highly polluted rivers that flow through the city. Allowing this storm water, which otherwise would be available for treatment and use, to flow into these rivers makes it unavailable and useless. Many Brazilians are shocked to see that, whenever it does rain, a vast flow of storm water gushes into the rivers and causes localized flooding, yet little gets collected and used. How frustrating it must feel to have a flood one day and water rationing the next. 

Where there is mismanagement, there must be bad politics not far behind, right? It turns out that the political party in control of the federal government and the city of Sao Paulo is different, and in opposition to, the party in charge of the state of Sao Paulo; moreover, these parties are longtime political rivals. Little was said during the elections this past October about water and the looming crisis as each party sought to protect itself from criticism about incompetence. I guess it was thought better to not bring up the issue than to have it deemed your fault during an election. After the close October elections, and fueled by multiple charges of corruption and a poor economy, the federal ruling coalition lost much of its support. The state government similarly has lost support and confidence this year and, if all that isn’t bad enough, the mayor of Sao Paulo was, in a social media poll, recently voted the worst mayor in the country. The three factions continue to fight over who is the least competent to solve the impending water crisis while Sao Paulo runs out of water. 

With water rationing, power shortages, a difficult economy that will be made worse by these shortages, and politicians who would rather fight and argue than form a coalition to solve the problem, the die certainly has been cast for a difficult year for Brazil. I heard from my colleagues that Sao Paulo saw a lot of thunderstorms in February. Thunderstorms of one sort or another certainly are on their way to Brazil. We’ll know soon enough if the ones that drop rain will have enough of an impact to avert a crisis.

expand_less