The Amazon effect: how deforestation is starving São Paulo of water
A drought two years ago triggered fighting, looting and official ‘states of calamity’ across the metropolis, with the army preparing to send in troops. Now, new warnings suggest it could happen again – and point to a surprising culprit
Jonathan Watts in São Paulo
São Paulo could face more devastating water shortages if farmers continue to clear the Amazon forest, warns the utility chief who recently steered the biggest city in the Americas from the edge of drought catastrophe.
Jerson Kelman, president of water company Sabesp, told Guardian Cities he felt a duty to speak out because he was a citizen as well as the head of a company who had seen firsthand how close this metropolis of 21 million people had come to a breakdown.
“We should not transform the Amazon into pastureland,” he said in an interview. “The Amazon creates a movement of water. If you could follow a molecule of water you would see that most of the clouds that are over São Paulo have passed across the Amazon. If the forest is cut, we’ll be in trouble.”
As one of the foremost authorities on water supply and hydropower in Brazil, Kelman’s comments are likely to reignite a debate – resisted by the country’s powerful agriculture lobby – about the link between the world’s biggest forest, climate change and a possible recurrence of the 2014-15 drought.
If things went wrong, we didn’t know what might happen. There could have been riots in the street.
The mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, appears to have been persuaded. In an interview with the Guardian he said recognised the importance of the link between the Amazon and the city’s water supply.
“We need to preserve the rainforest to preserve the cycle of rain in central and southeast Brazil,” he said, also stressing the need to reduce demand and promote recycling. His government, however, has made little progress in putting these words into action.
The 2014-15 drought was no ordinary dry period. Over a 12-month period, rainfall was half that of the previous worst year on records stretching back to the early 20th century. By January 2015, the volume of water at the main Cantareira reservoir system was down to 5% – barely a month’s supply.
Dozens of municipalities on the periphery of São Paulo declared “states of calamity”, which allowed for military intervention and emergency funds from the federal government.
At Itu – the worst affected city – there was fighting, theft and the looting of emergency water trucks. Many communities’ taps flowed for only a few hours every four days. In some condominiums, residents took buckets from swimming pools to flush toilets, argued over scarce communal supplies and denounced neighbours who washed their cars.
The dystopia even reached the city’s main commercial district around Avenida Paulista, where the swanky Bassano restaurant served guests with plastic plates and cutlery because there was insufficient water supply for dishwashers, and Starbucks only offered bottled beer and cans of Coke because there was not enough water for coffee.
With elections due the following year, the São Paulo state and city governments refused to declare an emergency. But Guardian Cities has learned from multiple sources that the authorities were far more worried than they admitted to the public at the time.
Today there is a mood of calm at the control centre of Sabesp (the Basic Sanitation Company of the State of São Paulo), the water utility that is 50.1% owned by the government. Real-time data displayed on giant screens and a dozen individual monitors show reservoirs are almost back to pre-crisis levels. Automated pumping stations – where water pressure to 220 neighbourhoods can be adjusted at the click of a mouse – are functioning normally.
But asked to recall how different it felt at the height of the crisis, Silvana Franco, a senior official in the control centre, loudly sucks in a breath and shakes her head.
“We were desperate. The reservoir level was just going down and down. We knew that when people don’t have water, they go crazy. We had seen the protests in smaller cities where people were breaking into property to steal water. We imagined what they would be like here with 21 million people. We thought about the hospitals unable to treat patients and children having to stay home from school. It would be chaos.”
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