São Paulo, 25 January. Two nights ago, driving up one of São Paulo´s main streets, Consolação, we passed two huge water tankers, trundling along in the midst of the cars.

We are used to seeing water tankers ( caminhões pipa) in news stories about the drought- ridden Northeast, delivering precious water to poor communities, but here, in the centre of São Paulo?

The next day I saw a tanker outside the school my children used to go to, here in Perdizes, a middle class district. I have a feeling water tankers are going to become a common sight, as we face the worst drought ever. Our taps run dry around 5pm every day, sometimes earlier. And they stay dry till early morning. When the water comes, it is not transparent but milky-white, probably from the large amounts of chlorine being used to kill whatever lurks in the lowest, previously untapped “dead volume” of the depths of the reservoir, from where the water now has to be pumped. More and more restaurants, hospitals and health centres, schools and factories are drilling artesian wells. Water tanks are selling like hot cakes, as people seek ways to store water for the dry periods.

One of the Cantareira reservoirsThe water crisis, which the authorities insist on calling “the hydric resources crisis” hoping it does not sound as bad, is now the main topic of conversation everywhere. After months of being played down, it is the front page story. The unthinkable, frightening, possibility that a megacity like São Paulo, with its 20 million people, might simply run out of water through a combination of climate change and drought, exacerbated by official incompetence and lack of planning, is looming.  Socially-minded business leader Oded Grajew, coordinator of the NGO Rede Nossa São Paulo, and founder of the Ethos Institute, likened it to the Titanic. The orchestra is still playing, but for how long? (See his warning here)

This is summer, when it is supposed to rain day after day, week after week. But so far we have had only a fraction of the normal downpours. And when it has rained, with sudden thunderstorms, the result is chaos. Flash floods, and over a thousand trees crashing down, blocking streets and knocking out power lines.

It is not just here in São Paulo that things are bad. In the other big states of the southeast, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the rivers and reservoirs are also at an all-time low.

TV news shows scenes of dried up river beds and carcasses of dead cows – not, as viewers are used to seeing, in the semi-arid region of the northeast – but here in the normally lush countryside around Brazil’s largest cities. Market gardeners will soon run out of water for irrigating their crops.

No sign of crisis on Sabesp's websiteThe São Paulo water company, Sabesp, blames the calamity entirely on the lack of rain. But for years there had been warnings that the water supply was not keeping up with the expanding population, that there were leakages of over 30%, that vegetation around the reservoirs and springs was not being protected. Nothing was done. Instead São Paulo´s two main rivers, the Tiete and the Pinheiros, were allowed to become open sewers, like the giant Billings Reservoir, which will now be used to substitute the exhausted Cantareira Reservoir, down to 5% of its capacity.

All last year, Governor Geraldo Alkmim refused to acknowledge the crisis, so as not to harm his chances for re-election. He still denies the indisputable fact that most people in the city now have no water at night, sometimes no water for days. Rationing, whatever it is called, is happening. Most of the population are affected by it. The absence of any official information about how this is being implemented, let alone any contingency plans should  the water run out completely, is deeply worrying.

This is the state government we are talking about. But the federal government is just as bad. It has only now begun to acknowledge that the drought is also causing an energy crisis, because 70% of Brazil’s power comes from hydroelectric dams. In the midwest and southeast many dam reservoirs are down to 10% capacity.

A crisis meeting was held in the presidential palace in Brasilia on January 24. The environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, was chosen to announce the decisions. Now, surely, she would announce that Brazil will turn to other renewables, like wind, solar and biomass, all of which this country has in abundance? And surely, being environment minister, she would stress the need for conservation, for protecting the reservoirs with trees to stop soil erosion and squatters´ invasions? And, aware of the connection between Amazon deforestation and rain patterns in the rest of Brazil, she would announce a complete stop to ‘desmatamento’ (deforestation) ?

No, none of that. The minister said the federal government would fund a project for the transfer of water from another river basin to Cantareira, which will take at least a year to finish. Calculations show that unless it rains torrentially in the next two months of summer, São Paulo´s reservoirs will run completely dry within 4 to 5 months.

To solve the energy crisis, and avoid the risk of more power cuts, the government will continue to rely on the energy generated by costly, polluting thermoelectric plants, powered by gas or coal (coal!). A campaign to save energy will be launched.

While the authorities dither, still reluctant to spell out the full impact of the situation, still saying things like: “but God is Brazilian” and “São Pedro´s (St Peter´s) aim must get better”, the crisis has forced Brazilians to appreciate what a precious resource water is. People who never thought twice about wasting water, taking long showers, letting taps run, now save, reuse, conserve. All sorts of movements, groups, blogs, and sites have sprung up with ideas and tips on saving water.

And, ultimate proof of how serious the situation has become, the water crisis will be one of the themes of Carnaval next month. The X-9 samba school will parade with floats full of giant taps with their tongues hanging out, and the figure of a sleeping São Pedro, indifferent to the pleas for rain. Maybe that figure should be Governor Alkmim.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil