São Paulo’s Battle Against Drought

The Great Paradox

São Paulo, Brazil, a metropolis of roughly 20 million, is facing a water crisis unparalleled in modern times. Although it is almost paradoxical that the most populated city in a country holding twelve percent of the world’s fresh water could find itself in this perilous position, the extreme drought is no mirage,. Powered by climate change, pollution, incompetent infrastructure, and a lack of governmental foresight, the water shortage is disrupting many Brazilian’s day-to-day lives, as mandatory water rationing is forcing São Paulo residents to go days without water. In response, some have resorted to drilling their own wells or hoarding water in buckets to satisfy simple hygienic needs. Water-dependent industries are struggling to maintain ordinary operations as well. The New York Times recently quoted local São Paulo bar owner Maria da Fátima Ribeiro asking: “Imagine going three days without any water and trying to run a business in a basic sanitary way.” Hospitals are asking similar questions amid reports that the Cândido Fontoura children’s hospital’s water taps ran dry earlier this month.

Reservoir’s Running Dry

The area’s water supplies are running dangerously low, as the Cantateria Reservoir system (which is compromised of five reservoirs and feeds nine million people) sat at only five percent capacity as of mid February. Similarly, the Alto Teite network supplies three million people and remains below fifteen percent. Calculations of predicted rainfall and the area’s consumption demands suggest the greater São Paulo region’s water supply is four to six months away from complete depletion, before the November rains arrive. State officials are poised to enact further rationing restrictions—a structure that would allow residents water only two days a week—if this month’s rains do not refill the reservoirs. While early March rains raised the Cantateria Reservoir system’s water level to nearly fourteen percent, the stricter rationing system will likely be implemented in the near future.

 Too Little Too Late

Aside from trucking in water, there is little else Brazilian officials can do in the short term. As thirty percent of the city’s treated water is lost due to pipe leakage, it is impossible to overhaul an incompetent system without an enormous time and financial investment. While the water utility is seeking to “reduce” leaks, imposing fines for overconsumption, and offering conservation incentives, none of these plans can induce rainfall, which is the only answer to the urgent demand. Further, although plans to draw water from a nearby river basin and construct new reservoirs are underway, they will not be completed until well into next year.

Toxic Rivers

São Paulo’s lack of proper industrial waste disposal and open sewage system prevents otherwise available resources from being accessed as well. The Tiete and Pinheiros Rivers, which traverse the city, rank among the most polluted rivers in the world; rather than water, thick ooze flows in certain sections of the rivers. While utilizing river water appears an obvious solution to augment the depleting reservoirs, treating water that is ashen gray in appearance and emits a strong odor of rotten eggs is not an option.

Flying Rivers Grounded

Climate change, fueled by deforestation, is another culprit in the crisis. Recent scientific studies indicate that the deforestation of the Amazon River basin, hundreds of miles away, is reducing South America’s available precipitation. A large tree in the Amazon rainforest can evaporate 300 liters of water a day, while, as a whole, the Amazon basin evaporates 20 billion tons of water vapor daily (more water than the Amazon River discharges into the Atlantic Ocean). Trees release this vapor into the atmosphere, creating a thick level of migratory mist known as a “flying river.” Winds usually propel the flying river west until the imposing Andes Mountains re-direct the moisture south, where it eventually winds up as rain in southern Brazil. However, as the Amazon’s deforestation increased over ten percent from last year, the flying river failed to appear this year. Many worry the flying river will never return.

Hitting Close to Home

The situation in São Paulo, and Brazil as a whole, makes the arid American West seem like an oasis. However, the dichotomy of the wet places grappling with fresh water shortages is not unique to Brazil, it is happening in America as well. When water is treated as a scarce resource, law and policy reflect its societal value. Colorado’s original prior appropriation system and recent modifications to create flexible water markets echo this. Foresight for water shortages was built into our system, but other areas are not afforded the present “luxury” we were originally burdened with.

Take Florida for example, as the fifth wettest state in the country creating a cautious water regime was not a concern,. Today, the lack of management and infrastructure forces Floridians to rely on groundwater for ninety percent of consumption. This is troubling because population and consumption projections indicate that by 2035 Florida will need to pump 250 million more gallons of water than the Florida Aquifer even holds.

Florida must learn from Brazil’s lack of foresight before it is too late. What was once taken for granted now needs to be seriously considered. Hopefully, it takes less than severe water rationing to motivate Florida, and states across the country, to engage in responsible and forward-thinking water management.


The title image features São Paolo and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license to Andre Deak. Deak does not endorse this blog.


Jan Rocha, Drought Bites as Amazon’s “Flying Rivers” Drying Up, Climate News Network, September 14, 2014, available at http://www.climatenewsnetwork.net/drought-bites-as-amazons-flying-rivers-dry-up/.

Erin Sullivan, Will Florida’s Impending Water Crisis be Addressed by State Legislature? As the 2014 Session Draws to a Close, it Looks Less and Less Likely, Orlando Weekly, April 15, 2014, available at http://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/will-floridas-impending-water-crisis-be-addressed-by-state-legislature/Content?oid=2242828.


Maruissa Whatley & Rebeca Lerer, Brazil Drought: Water Rationing Alone won’t Save Sao Paulo, The Guardian, February 11, 2015, available at http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/feb/11/brazil-drought-ngo-alliance-50-ngos-saving-water-collapse.


Simon Romero, Taps Start to Run Dry in Brazil’s Largest City, New York Times, February 16, 2015, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/world/americas/drought-pushes-sao-paulo-brazil-toward-water-crisis.html?_r=1 .

Simon Romero, A Willing Explorer of Sao Paulo’s Polluted Rivers, New York Times, December 14, 2012, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/world/americas/a-diver-sifts-through-sao-paulos-polluted-rivers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

New Zealand Herald, Heavy Rains don’t End Threat of Water Rationing in Brazil, March 12, 2015, available at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11415906.