Friday, March 13

Latest on Brazil's water shortage drama has lessons on managing drought response anywhere

I've omitted several passages from the following March 10 report by Inter Press Service (Brazil – from the Droughts of the Northeast to São Paulo’s Thirst) so I'd suggest reading the article in its entirety.  I wanted to focus on a few situations brought out by the report that I think represent important lessons for other drought-stricken regions in the world.  

First lesson;  Don't manipulate water statistics and use other sneaky tactics in the effort to downplay the extent of a water shortage because these fool no one and only increase the public contempt for governing authorities.  

Second lesson:  Officials in a major city shouldn't wait until a drought intensifies before encouraging residents to return to their home regions if at all possible. 

Third lesson: Don't depend on governments to take the lead in water conservation measures for individual households.  The conservation initiative discussed in the report (Movimento Cisterna Já)  is citizen-led.   (The organization's website is in Spanish but is translated into English reasonably well by Google.)  Note the simplicity of the tactics, which were adapted from rural populations with a long history of surviving droughts. 

If you read the entire report you'll learn that Brazil's government poured a lot of effort and money into developing a northeastern region in the country that suffers from perennial water stress. The development made it feasible for a number of São Paulo residents originally from the region to return there when drought struck the megacity. 

Two questions not addressed by the report: 

1. Whether the reverse migration is happening in large enough numbers to take measurable pressure off the city's terribly strained water sources and,

2. Whether the return of large numbers of city residents to the northeast would quickly overwhelm the rural region's still fragile resources.  

But I suppose it's too early for Inter Press to gather such data.        

Brazil – from the Droughts of the Northeast to São Paulo’s Thirst
By Mario Osava 

SÃO PAULO , Mar 10 2015 (IPS) - Six million people in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, may at some point find themselves without water. The February rains did not ward off the risk and could even aggravate it by postponing rationing measures which hydrologists have been demanding for the last six months.

The threat is especially frightening for millions of people who have flocked here from Brazil’s poorest region, the semi-arid Northeast, many of whom fled the droughts that are so frequent there.

The Nordestinos did not imagine that they would face a scarcity of water in this land of abundance, where most of them have prospered. The most famous of them, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, became a trade union leader and eventually president of the country from 2003 to 2011.

“Our water tank holds 4,500 litres, which lasts us two days,” Luciano de Almeida, the owner of the restaurant Nación Nordestina, which serves 8,000 customers a month, told Tierramérica. “I’m looking for a place to put another tank so I’ll have 10,000 litres, negotiating with neighbours, since my roof might not support the weight.”

Many people in this city of 22 million people share his concern about storing more water, especially in the Zona Norte or northern zone of Greater São Paulo, which will be the first area affected by rationing if the state government decides to take measures aimed at guaranteeing water supplies year-round.

The Zona Norte is supplied by the Cantareira system of interconnecting reservoirs which, on the verge of collapse, is still providing water for six million people. It supplied nine million people up to mid-2014, when one-third of the demand was transferred to the other eight systems that provide water in the city.
But, he complained, the state government and its water company, Sabesp, prefer “to generate confusion” by reporting that on Feb. 23 the water level in the Cantareira system reached 10.5 percent, double the late January level – while failing to clarify that they were referring to the “dead” or inactive storage water in the Cantareira system below the intake point, the water that cannot be drained from a reservoir by gravity and can only be pumped out.

The company has been using this storage water since July 2014.

Using the intake point as the reference, the level is minus 18.5 percent – far below the 12.3 percent of April 2014.

The water crisis is the result of two years of drought in southeast Brazil. Exceptional rainfall would be needed in the rest of March in order to store up water for the six-month dry season. But because that is unlikely, experts in hydrology are calling for immediate rationing to avoid a total collapse.

Sabesp has imposed undeclared rationing by reducing the water pressure in the pipes, which leads to an interruption in supply in many areas during certain parts of the day. The company also fines those who increase consumption and offers discounts to those who reduce it.
In its attempt to avoid the political costs of rationing, the state government decided to use water from the Billings reservoir to meet demand. According to [Delcio Rodrigues of the Water Alliance], this is “appalling” because that water is heavily polluted, with mercury, for example, which poses a serious health risk.

But because of the crisis, reforestation has been stepped up in the water basins. That is necessary for the Cantareira system, where only 20 percent of the original vegetation still survives, Whately said. Forests improve water production and retention and curb erosion, but it is a long-term solution, and cannot resolve the current emergency, she added.
And the rural population, the hardest-hit by drought, has learned to live with the semi-arid climate in the Northeast, collecting rainwater in tanks, for drinking, household use and irrigation of their small-scale crops. This social technology has now been adapted by the Movimento Cisterna Já, a São Paulo organisation, to help people weather the water crisis here.
Meanwhile, the Alliance for Water, a network of 46 social and environmental organisations from the state of São Paulo, is lobbying the state government and mobilising society with the aim of “building water security” in the city.

The February rains, which were heavier than average, helped the Cantareira system’s reservoirs recover some of their capacity. But the situation is still “extremely serious,” Marussia Whately, the head of the Alliance, told Tierramérica.

“This requires an all-out effort, especially to relieve the suffering of the poor outlying neighbourhoods, which do not have water tanks and can’t store up water for the hours or days without supply,” said Delcio Rodrigues, an activist with the group and the vice president of the Vitae Civilis Institute, which focuses on climate change.

This article was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes



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