Water crisis squeezes Sao Paulo state

Record-breaking heat in Brazil leaves some of Sao Paulo state’s 44 million residents scrambling for clean water sources.

Itu, Brazil – The state of Sao Paulo is on the cusp of an unprecedented water crisis stemming in part from one of the worst droughts in decades, leaving millions scrambling to find clean water sources.

On Friday, the city of Sao Paulo recorded its hottest temperature in more than 71 years, and 70 cities in the state are facing extreme drought, with 30 cities already on some sort of water rationing.

The problem stems from a lack of water at the Cantareira, a complex of reservoirs and small dams built in the 1970’s that are the primary source of water for more than 10 million people in the state.

The water levels at the Cantareira are now below four percent, the lowest in recorded history, and estimates on when it could totally dry range from November to March of next year.

A visit to the town of Nazare Paulista revealed how bad things are, with the water lines under bridges visible, and abandoned cars appearing from the mud of what was once underwater.

In May, just a few weeks before the World Cup, and with the water levels nearing 10 percent, officials released what they called an emergency “dead volume” reserve of water into the Cantareira to boost volumes back up to above 20 percent. But with almost no rain, it went down to record lows.

Officials are now debating if they want to release a second round of reserve water, as there are disagreements over whether it is healthy for drinking.

Re-using sewage water

The state of Sao Paulo is larger than the UK, has a population of 44 million equal to Kenya, and a local economy of nearly $700bn equal to the Netherlands.

Residents of Itu, an old and historic municipality in Sao Paulo state, told Al Jazeera they had no other choice than to re-use sewage water to flush their toilets.

On Friday, dozens of people appeared at a local ravine overgrown with shrubs, all desperate to get any water they could from an obscure water pipe, the only source in their neighbourhood.

Things are so bad I had to get dirty sewage water just to re-use to flush my toilets.

by Rosa da Silva, Itu resident

With empty buckets and plastic soda bottles in hand, they waited patiently in line, some for more than an hour.

This is where Rosa da Silva waited to get water, now a precious commodity in many neighbourhoods in this working class town of 154,000 people outside Sao Paulo.

Da Silva, who lives with her three children and two adult relatives, has been without water in her home for 12 days.

“I have to get water here to cook and clean because we haven’t had one drop of water in our house (in the past 12 days),” she said.

Another Itu resident, 84-year-old Antonio Barbosa, shuffled up to the line holding a plastic bottle.

“It’s been 10 days without water in my house, so I come here to get a little so I can take a shower and cool down so I can sleep,” he said.

Nobody is quite sure where the water from the pipe comes from or if it is clean. Some people say they have become sick from it, others say they have not.

What most here do agree on is that it is humiliating to have to do this and it’s out of necessity not desire.

‘Politics of water’

In the middle of nationwide elections the past month, the issue of water shortages in Sao Paulo has been avoided by most politicians.

The opposition Social Democracy Party (PSDB) has governed the state for the past 13 years and their candidate for president, Aecio Neves, is in one of the tightest races in history for president against incumbent Dilma Rousseff.

Governor Geraldo Alckmin, a Neves ally from the PSDB, has so far avoided saying there is a water crisis and instead says all is being done to make sure widespread water rationing is not needed.

But in the last presidential debate, Rousseff said Neves’ party was leaving Sao Paulo “without water,” a direct reference to the shortages.

Neves reminded Rousseff that Alckmin was overwhelmingly re-elected earlier this month, soundly defeating the candidate from Rousseff’s Workers Party.

But after the election, the issue of water shortages and mandatory rationing might become more pressing and unavoidable.

While the candidates for president debated on national TV, back in Itu few had time to watch.

The line of people showing up with empty bottles and buckets at the ravine continued to grow.

“I don’t care what the politicians say,” a middle aged woman without water for 10 days said as she pushed a wheelbarrow full of coke bottles she just filled with water.

“Here it’s only about survival,” she concluded, “and for that we can only help ourselves.”

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @elizondogabriel

Source: Al Jazeera