Fri, Dec 01, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The Amazon effect: How deforestation
is starving Sao Paulo of water

A drought two years ago triggered fighting and looting across the metropolis. Now, new warning signs suggest it could happen again — and point to an interesting culprit

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian, SAO PAULO, Brazil

Illustration: Mountain people

Sao Paulo faces more devastating water shortages if farmers continue to clear the Amazon forest, the utility chief who recently steered the biggest city in the Americas from the edge of drought catastrophe said.

Jerson Kelman, president of Companhia de Saneamento Basico do Estado de Sao Paulo (Basic Sanitation Co of the State of Sao Paulo, SABESP), said he felt a duty to speak out because he is a citizen as well as the head of a water company who has seen firsthand how close the metropolis of 21 million people had come to a breakdown.

“We should not transform the Amazon into pastureland. The Amazon creates a movement of water. If the forest is cut, we will be in trouble,” he said in an interview.

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 to 2015 drought.

That 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 percent — barely a month’s supply.

Dozens of municipalities on the periphery of Sao 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 neighbors who washed their cars.

The dystopia even reached the city’s main commercial district around Avenida Paulista, where the swanky Bossano restaurant served guests with plastic plates and cutlery because there was insufficient water 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 Sao Paulo state and city governments refused to declare an emergency.

However, the Guardian 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 sense of calm at the control center of SABESP, which is 50.1 percent owned by the government.

However, real-time data displayed on giant screens and a dozen individual monitors show reservoirs are almost back to precrisis levels. Automated pumping stations — where water pressure to 220 neighborhoods can be adjusted at the click of a mouse — are functioning normally.

When asked to recall how different it felt at the height of the crisis, SABESP senior official Silvana Franco loudly sucked in a breath and shook her head.

“We were desperate. The reservoir level was just going down and down. We knew that when people do not 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 it 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,” she said.

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