Climate

Largest City In South America Could Run Out Of Water In 100 Days

CREDIT: (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

The Cantareira System, responsible for half the water supply of South America's largest city, is now at 3.2 percent capacity.

It’s one in the morning, and dozens of people are lining up at a series of public water taps in the Brazilian town of Itu, in the state of São Paulo. Most of the people that come to the taps at this early hour are elderly or families with children. They do so in order to avoid the large crowds that flock to the area seeking water throughout the day. “Yesterday I got here at five in the morning and there were six people. There were 60 people in line behind me by the time I left,” one of the locals told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

This scene is repeating itself across the state, which is home to the seventh-largest metropolitan region in the world and responsible for a third of Brazil’s GDP. It is going through its worst drought in almost a century — the worst spring drought in history. During the last rainy season (October-February), São Paulo only received between a third and a half of its normal amount of rain. Since then it has only seen about 40 percent of the normal amount. The region is running dangerously low on water, with its reservoirs operating at under five percent capacity. The rainy season — which was supposed to start in late September or early October — is a month late, and no significant rains are predicted anytime soon. Some sources estimate the state, which is home to 44 million people, could run dry in less than 100 days.

“If the drought continues, residents will face more dramatic water shortages in the short term,” Vicente Andreu, the president of Brazil’s National Water Agency, told reporters. “If it doesn’t rain, we run the risk that the region will have a collapse like we’ve never seen before.”

In the city of São Paulo — South America’s largest — at least 60 percent of residents have experienced water shortages in the past month. The main reservoir feeding the city has become a dry bed of cracked earth. Volume is so low that authorities had to build 2 miles of pipes in order to salvage the remaining water. Reservoirs across the state are experiencing similarly low volumes. Cantareira, the biggest reservoir in the state, currently holds 3.2 percent of its normal load.

Outside the metropolitan area the situation is just as bad. Paulista (hailing from São Paulo) agriculture has long been a driver of the Brazilian economy, and the world is partially dependent on it for things like coffee. The drought is affecting commodity prices worldwide, according to the Wall Street Journal, and coffee prices are currently at a two and half year high with more rises to follow. Other crops like sugar cane and soy are also facing significantly reduced yields.

The drought is becoming a contentious issue in Brazil’s presidential elections. The incumbent Dilma Roussef blames her opponent’s party, which has governed São Paulo for 20 years, for mismanagement of the state’s water supply. Her opponent, on the other hand, blames the federal government for a lack of intervention. Some argue that officials should have seen this coming and implemented rationing and other preventive measures before the situation reached such dire straits.

In the long term, climate change could well exacerbate Sao Paulo’s problems. The IPCC says that the region is likely to become even drier in the period between September and November as warming continues.

Joaquim is an intern at ThinkProgress.