Amid Epic Drought, South America’s Largest City Is Running Out Of Water

CREDIT: AP Photo/Vagner Guarezi

In this May 9, 2009 photo, farmer Nelci de Fatima Goncalves pulls a cow across a cracked field caused by a drought in Passo Fundo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

If it doesn’t rain in Sao Paulo, Brazil in the next 45 days, the system that provides half the city’s drinking water will run dry.

Sao Paulo is South America’s largest city, and is currently experiencing its worst drought in 50 years. So far, the drought has hurt corn and cotton crops, driven up prices of sugar and orange juice, interrupted production of beer and paper, and left cattle and goats to starve.

But as the drought has dragged on, the executive secretary of non-profit water association Consorcio PCJ told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that Sao Paulo’s largest water system — the Cantareira — is currently at less than a quarter of capacity. Though the Cantareira is supposed to supply water to approximately 10 million people in Sao Paulo, which has a population of 20 million, its levels are the lowest its been in decades, according to a report in the Global Post.

If it doesn’t rain before late March, all of the system’s water will be dried up. But if it doesn’t rain before Feb. 15, Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin said the city will have to begin rationing its supplies — something that hasn’t happened since 2003. January was the hottest month on record in the city, Reuters reported, and meteorologists expect little rain in the next week.

“I would have already shut off the tap” to consumers on a controlled basis, PCJ Consortium project manager Jose Cezar Saad told Reuters. “Because in reality, the big problem isn’t even today, it’s the normal dry season that we’re going to face starting in May and June.”

The drought and resulting threat to water supply is also putting a damper on outlooks for the World Cup, which is supposed start in Sao Paulo on June 12 — right in the middle of normal drought season. If rains resume in late February or March, the city should be able to avoid a major water crisis.

Sao Paulo’s drought mimics other severe droughts that are happening across the world, including California, where extreme drought has put seventeen rural communities in danger of running out of water in 60 to 120 days. In Iran, only five percent of the water remains in the biggest lake in the Middle East, though their long drought ended about two years ago.

A January study in the peer-reviewed journal Nature by drought researcher Aiguo Dai shows that across the world from 1923 to 2010, there has been a global trend of increased dryness, which is directly linked to climate change. Dai’s paper predicts “severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas resulting from either decreased precipitation and/or increased evaporation.”