São Paulo is Running Low on Water

What will happen when Brazil’s taps go dry?

Brazil Drought
A view from São Paolo's depleted Cantareira Reservoir. STRINGER/BRAZIL/Reuters/Corbis

Brazil might be synonymous with lush Amazonian landscapes, but it could soon be known as much for its dry reservoirs as its vibrant Carnival. Even though the country’s largest city, São Paulo, is close to some of the world’s largest rivers, it’s running dangerously low on water.

A drought has led to “an unprecedented water crisis” in São Paulo, Simon Romero reports for the New York Times. With the city’s reservoir system nearly empty, the city is resorting to reducing water pressure in order to keep its reserves from drying up entirely. But that could be just the beginning—Romero reports that officials are now considering cutting running water to just two days a week and have even discussed warning residents to flee the city.

Faced with dwindling water supplies, São Paulo residents are taking matters into their own hands. Reuters reports that people have started drilling homemade wells and that businesses and hospitals are installing their own water treatment centers. And São Paulo isn't the only city with water woes. Jonathan Watts tells the Guardian that at least 93 cities in Brazil are now rationing their water, including one city, Olinda, that has cut water supplies to just three days a week.

How did a country that holds 12 percent of the world’s fresh water get into this crisis? It’s complicated, says Romero:

Experts say the origins of the crisis go beyond the recent drought to include an array of interconnected factors: the city’s surging population growth in the 20th century; a chronically leaky system that spills vast amounts of water before it can reach homes; notorious pollution in the Tietê and Pinheiros rivers traversing the city (their aroma can induce nausea in passers-by); and the destruction of surrounding forests and wetlands that have historically soaked up rain and released it into reservoirs.

Deforestation in the Amazon River basin, hundreds of miles away, may also be adding to São Paulo’s water crisis….Officials also point to global warming.

While Brazilians still hope that the country’s wet season makes a late appearance, others are predicting everything from water riots to more cases of dengue fever and other diseases incubated in residents’ water hoards. And with scientists warning that “mega-droughts” could be the wave of the future as the planet continues to warm, São Paulo's struggles could be an early example of what will soon be routine crises.

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