São Paulo: red alert for the water crisis

The total demand for water consumption has increased by 80% in Brazil in the last two decades, according to a report published in December 2018 by the National Water Agency (ANA). And the trend is for that demand to continue increasing. The forecast on consumption predicts it will increase by 24% by 2030. The records on increased water demand show that consumption is directly related to economic development and the urbanization process in the country, based on the same study.

Moreover, 12% to 15% of the total water supply in the world is in Brazil. That water is present in its abundant rivers facilitating its harvesting, treatment, and utilization. In spite of all that availability, some regions suffer from constant hydric crises, whether that is through excessive usage or scarcity, demonstrating bad administrative policies and the absence of environmental awareness. However, a hydric crisis has occurred in the largest metropolis in the Country and one of the largest in the world. That activated the red alert button at the state government and the population to the serious problem. The media, authorities, and organized civil society are focused on this problem.

Satellite View, São Paulo Photo: Wikipedia

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The water crisis in the largest city in Brazil

A hydric crisis occurred in 2014 and 2015 that severely impacted the Cantareira System (Water Storage System) that supplies almost half of the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo. It is located in the headwaters area of the Paraná State Hydrographic Region, and the Rio Paraíba do Sul river basin. It is the largest population agglomeration in Brazil, with 21.5 million inhabitants.

“That area suffers from permanent hydric stress, so water demands must be supplied from other basins and require an additional effort of water management,” explains Wagner Costa Ribeiro. The professor and researcher at the University of São Paulo (USP) He is one of the organizers of “Livro Branco da Água” (The White Water Book) that includes articles from several researchers on the 2014 hydric crisis in São Paulo.

Nazaré Paulista City/SP Date: 03/03/2018 Photo: São Paulo Government

ATLANTIC interviewed him, and he pointed out diverse factors that brought about the crisis. He emphasized the water management model assuring greater discounts for those who do not consume large quantities of water. There are other causes related to management, according to him, as there are large amounts of wasted water from the distribution system, as well as stealing from the network. Ribeiro also points out natural factors from that region that needs to be considered. “It is fundamental to remember that every ten years, on an average, there is an extremely dry season plaguing the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo. Therefore, it is expected to occur again. Thus, one cannot blame the absence of rain, as this occurs routinely, as several research studies have stated”.

The interconnection of water reservoirs can be considered as an essential factor for overcoming the crisis, as well as the contribution from the population, emphasizes Professor Wagner Ribeiro. He gives examples from other cities where awareness campaigns achieved noteworthy results, such as Seville, Barcelona, Madrid, and New York.


A hydric crisis occurred in 2014 and 2015 that severely impacted the Cantareira System (Water Storage System) that supplies almost half of the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo.

Government initiatives encouraged switching plumbing fixtures and faucets to new and more efficient ones. The government also intends to recover headwaters by way of reforestation (as that facilitates the accumulation of water and the occurrence of local rains) and also giving financial incentives to the inhabitants who live in native vegetation areas, so that they leave the forests intact on their properties, as well as other measures.

Ribeiro also emphasizes transferring the management from private administration to governmental control as a solution – as took place in Buenos Aires, Paris, and Berlin – also measures as sewage treatment and adequate garbage disposal to avoid and become another source of contamination in bodies of water.

Brazil has all the water necessary for solving the natural water-supply problems being faced according to the USP researcher, but he emphases other threats. “The disregard for legislation results in the contamination of stretches of the rivers in Amazons from mining activities. The occupation of the headwaters, related to the intensive usage of agro toxins contaminates rivers and aquifers, has decreased the capacity for resupplying of freshwater”.

Water and natural disasters

Extremely dry seasons, droughts, mudslides, and floods make up the majority of natural disasters that take place in Brazil. Floods have been declared as an Emergency Status or a Public Calamity in 2,680 (48%) of Brazilian cities and towns in the 5,570 total Brazilian towns and cities at least once from 2003 to 2017. The same takes place when there is an extremely dry season or drought, affecting around 51% (2,839). Around 89% (2,375) of those towns and cities are located in the Northeast, South, and Southeast regions of Brazil.

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