A Historic Drought Grips Brazil's Economic Capital | KUOW News and Information

A Historic Drought Grips Brazil's Economic Capital

Feb 10, 2015
Originally published on February 13, 2015 3:44 pm

Last Sunday, hundreds of Paulistanos, as the residents of Sao Paulo are known, dressed up and danced on the streets at one of the dozens of block parties that happen in advance of the annual celebration known as Carnival.

Except this year – among the pirates and Viking bumblebees — some costumes had a more serious, if still not entirely sober, theme.

Antonio Passareli was dressed as a water fountain — with the spigot placed strategically on his waist. But it's no laughing matter, he said.

"We have to make some noise about water," Passareli said, adding he was desperately worried about the city's current water shortage.

And he's not alone.

Southern coastal Brazil is suffering its worst drought in 80 years. South America's biggest city – home to more than 20 million people – may soon be under severe rationing.

Water restrictions are pretty arbitrary at the moment, but the state government is considering emergency rationing in the coming weeks: The most draconian plan could see residents without any water for five days a week.

"Sao Paulo was known as the drizzle city, lots of drizzle. Not anymore," says Augusto Jose Pereira Filho, a professor of atmospheric science at Sao Paulo University. "Now it's kind of a desert."

The reason for the drought is complicated: a mix of climate change, Amazonian deforestation, water mismanagement and Pereira's theory that the massive expansion of cities like Sao Paulo with very little green spaces left has created a kind of heat island which sucks up moisture. That, Pereira says, actually diverts water from the surrounding countryside where the reservoirs are. He says he fears a future where there will be riots over water.

"That scenario is really scary," he says. "Water is very important; it's a fundamental resource for us."

The Cantaeira reservoir system provides half Sao Paulo's drinking water. It's now down to only 6 percent of capacity.

But it's not only Sao Paulo that's in crisis. The drought has affected the breadbasket state of Minas Gerais as well as Rio de Janeiro. Food prices are soaring and businesses are struggling to adapt.

Pablo Muniz is the owner of Tigre Cego restaurant, which is using disposable plates and cutlery — as are many restaurants in Sao Paulo.

"I've no water every day from 12 midday to 8 a.m. in the morning the next day," he says.

Muniz and others in the city blame the local government for the problem. The drought has been going on for months, but he says in advance of the World Cup — which Brazil hosted last summer — and the elections that followed, the authorities didn't want to take tough action. And now it's a disaster, he says.

"They were pretending we didn't have a problem, but it was already very clear that we were having a problem," he says.

Many apartment buildings in the city are drilling for wells; others are trucking in water at great cost.

Tania Franco is a freelance journalist. Its 1:50 in the afternoon. The water gets shut off in her building at 2 p.m., and she is rushing around filling up containers.

"(I use this bottle) to flush the toilet," she tells me. "It's the only way. We try to do everything before two p.m. We take showers, we do the laundry, but there are some things we cannot do in advance right?"

She says she hopes this crisis will lead to better conservation policies – some estimates say that 40 percent of water in Brazil is lost to leaky pipes and old infrastructure.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

South America's largest city, home to more than 20 million people, may soon be under severe water rationing. Southern coastal Brazil is suffering its worst drought in 80 years. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro sent this report from the country's economic hub.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Carnival is coming to Brazil. On Sunday hundreds of Paulistanos - as the residents in Sao Paulo are known - dressed up and danced on the streets at one of the dozens of block parties that happen in advance of the annual celebration. Except this year, among the pirates and the Viking bumblebees, some costumes had a more serious, if still not entirely sober, theme.

ANTONIO PASSARELI: We have to make some noise about water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Antonio Passareli. He's dressed as a water fountain, with the spigot placed pretty strategically on his waist. But it's no laughing matter, he says.

Are you worried about the water situation here in Sao Paulo?

PASSARELI: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As are most residents of this massive city. Current water restrictions are arbitrary across Sao Paulo, but the state government is now considering a formal emergency rationing. The most draconian plan could see residents without any water for five days a week.

AUGUSTO JOSE PEREIRA FILHO: Sao Paulo is known as the drizzle city - lots of drizzle. Not anymore. Now it's kind of a desert.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Augusto Jose Pereira Filho, a professor of atmospheric science at Sao Paulo University. The reason for the drought is complicated - a mix of climate change, Amazonian deforestation, water mismanagement. But it's come as a shock to Brazilians, who have always taken water for granted. Eighty percent of the country is run on hydroelectric power, and now regular power cuts too are being predicted. Pereira's theory is that the massive expansion of cities like Sao Paulo, with very few green spaces, has created kind of heat islands which suck up moisture. That means violent thunderstorms over the city, but it actually diverts water from the surrounding countryside where the reservoirs are. So, lots of flooding on busy city streets during this rainy season, but little rainfall where it's needed. Pereira says he fears a future where there will be riots over water.

PEREIRA FILHO: That scenario is really scary, you know? Really scary. Water is very important. It's a fundamental element for us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While there hasn't been widespread disturbances yet, there is anger. Pablo Muniz is the owner of Tigre Cego, a restaurant in the trendy Villa Magdalena neighborhood of Sao Paulo. Here, as in many restaurants in Sao Paulo right now, they're using disposable plates and cutlery because they have no water to wash dishes. Other businesses have had to close completely.

PABLO MUNIZ: I have no water every day from 12 midday till 8 in the morning the next day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Muniz and others in the city blame the local government for the problem. The drought has been going on for months and nothing was done because he says the government didn't want to look bad in advance of the World Cup and the elections.

MUNIZ: They were pretending that we didn't have a problem. But it was already very clear that we were having a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many apartment buildings in the city are actually drilling wells in their basements. Others are trucking in water at great cost. But these are short-term solutions. Tania Franco is a freelance journalist. It's 1:50 in the afternoon. The water gets shut off in her building at 2 p.m., and she rushes around filling containers.

What do you use this water for?

TANIA FRANCO: To flush the toilet. That's the only way because we try to do everything before 2 p.m. So we take showers, we do the laundry, we do the dishes. But there are some things that we cannot do in advance, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Franco says she hopes this crisis will lead to better conservation policies. Some estimates say that 40 percent of water in Brazil is lost due to leaky pipes and old infrastructure. Back at the pre-Carnival celebrations, Luciana Figueredo has raindrops on her costume. Around her everyone is having a good time in the sunshine, but she says people have been commenting.

LUCIANA FIGUEREDO: We hope that I make it rain. I don't have this power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It doesn't come.

FIGUEREDO: No. We hope so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.

FIGUEREDO: It's gray, but - no rain. (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.