Lessons from São Paulo’s Water Shortage

Jaguari Reservoir, one of five in São Paulo's Cantareira System, which is at about 13 percent of capacity.  Image acquired on February 11, 2015.  Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
Jaguari Reservoir, one of five in São Paulo’s Cantareira System, which is at about 13 percent of capacity. Image acquired on February 11, 2015. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

It’s getting harder and harder to separate nature’s role in disasters from our own, and the dire water predicament confronting São Paulo, Brazil, is no exception.

But as with the ongoing drought in California, there are important lessons from São Paulo’s grim situation that can help us prepare for the “new normal” that’s unfolding.

It’s indisputable that São Paulo, the economic heartbeat of Brazil, is in trouble. The megacity of 20 million people is suffering its worst drought in eight decades. The five reservoirs in the Cantareira system, which provides nearly half the city’s drinking water, are at a dangerously low 13 percent of capacity. That’s up from even lower levels thanks to some recent rains, and while more precipitation could arrive in the coming weeks, historically the driest period of the year is April through September, just around the corner.

Some São Paulo residents have gone without tap water for days at a time. Others have fled the city, creating a new brand of “water refugees.”

As the southeastern Brazilian city gears up to host the 2016 summer Olympics, businesses are suffering from the lack of water. Economists say the drought could shave 2% off of Brazil’s GDP.

Meanwhile, a “clandestine drilling fever” is taking place across the city, according to an NPR report. As people and businesses worry about rationing, they are drilling their own wells to access groundwater. This unregulated, wildcat drilling threatens to pollute underground supplies, worsening the drought’s long-term impact and raising public health risks.

Unlike Los Angeles, São Paulo is not a desert city. Whereas LA averages just 15 inches (381 millimeters) of rain a year, São Paulo —> Read More

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