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Brazil Turns to Big Projects To Fix Water Crisis

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, an interesting article on Brazil’s plan to tap a long-polluted dam to alleviate a punishing water shortage:

An aerial view shows illegally built slums on the border of the polluted water of Billings reservoir in São Paulo.
An aerial view shows illegally built slums on the border of the polluted water of Billings reservoir in São Paulo.
As he stood by the dam that is a last hope for this Brazilian megacity to avoid water rationing, marina worker Valdir Mastrocezari saw a problem. He also smelled it.

Baking under the noonday sun, near the drought-exposed shoreline of the massive Billings reservoir, was a foul soup of raw sewage laced with human excrement.

The state government plans to use treated water only from non-polluted parts of the reservoir to ease the epic drought that has devastated southeast Brazil, the nation’s wealthiest region. But the proposal has drawn criticism, as scientists warn that high levels of fecal coliform and other contaminants make it dangerous and a costly proposition.

It is one of several controversial proposals to fend off a water crisis that many Brazilians, including Mr. Mastrocezari, believe is largely man-made and might have been ameliorated, if not avoided.

“If they want to use this water, they will have to stop this [pollution] first,” said Mr. Mastrocezari, 56, who blames contaminants for a nasty rash on his arms. “People don’t swim here. We avoid putting our feet in the water.”

Some officials and public utility administrators say they have the situation under control and have accused the Brazilian media of sensationalizing the problem.

Southeast Brazil’s worst drought in 80 years already has left millions of residents suffering with dry taps for days at a time. With the six-month dry season just beginning, some experts predict the government is likely to impose severe rationing for millions of people more this year.

Although unusually heavy rains during Brazil’s just-concluded wet season have brought temporary relief to some regions, water levels at several key reservoirs in greater São Paulo remain dangerously low. Public officials and utility agencies are scrambling to find short-term fixes and long-term solutions.

Among the costly and complex projects under consideration is São Paulo’s proposal to tap into the decrepit Billings reservoir, which hasn’t been used as a potable water source for decades. Separately, officials in Rio de Janeiro are looking at constructing a costly desalinization plant.

 But critics say that such measures are likely too little, too late, and overly expensive. Incentives such as steep water rate increases and stricter building codes should have been implemented months or years ago to encourage conservation, they assert. These people also blame inadequate investment in storage capacity and wastewater reuse projects for the current crisis.

“We are working after the bomb burst, and these measures now announced are palliative measures,” said Paulo Skaf, president of the powerful Industrial Federation of São Paulo state and a former gubernatorial candidate. “These are works that will take four and five years, and won’t solve the problem for 2015.”

Other better and cheaper alternatives remain underexplored, some analysts contend. For example, São Paulo loses an estimated 30% to 35% of its water supply due to leakage compared to 7% in San Francisco.

“One of the cheapest, easiest ways for a city to increase their quote, unquote, ?supply,’ is basically make sure whatever you have is not going to loss,” said Newsha K. Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in California, who visited São Paulo last year. “Big, massive infrastructure solutions, I think, should be a last resort, should not be the first.”

Since last year, when reservoir levels began dropping precipitously in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other states, the record dry spell has touched farmers, factories and millions of residents with power blackouts and water-pressure drops. Cases of dengue fever have soared as residents forced to store water in buckets and other containers have created mosquito breeding grounds.

Many scientists and environmental experts believe that Brazil’s multiyear dry spell heralds a permanent climactic shift, exacerbated by Amazon deforestation and poor resource management—and not the Brazilian belief that St. Peter, the Roman Catholic saint, controls rainfall.

“Our water crisis is not the fault of St. Peter,” said Savio Souza Cruz, environmental secretary for Minas Gerais state. “In fact, St. Peter only served to make clear our own problems.”

An aerial view of the Atibainha dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir, one of the main water reservoirs that supply the state of São Paulo.
An aerial view of the Atibainha dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir, one of the main water reservoirs that supply the state of São Paulo.

The drought’s impact has been greatest in the southeast, which is hundreds of miles from the Amazon River and relies on regional reservoir networks.

In greater São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis and financial center, the situation is dire. Last year, when the rainy season officially ended March 31, the main reservoir system serving the city, Cantareira, stood at 39% of capacity, totaling 380 billion liters.

On Monday, Cantareira was at 19.4% of capacity, including the “dead volume” of water that requires special pumps to reach. In the past, the reservoir served nearly 9 million São Paulo residents, called Paulistanos, but that number has now shrunk to less than 6 million as the city switched customers to other smaller reservoirs.

In parched northeastern Brazil, the water-supply systems of more than 50 municipalities are in a state of collapse, a number that soon could double if more rainfall doesn’t arrive, Brazil’s Minister of National Integration, Gilberto Occhi, said last week. Brazil also faces potential electricity shortages later this year because about two-thirds of the country’s energy comes from hydro-power.

Critics say that São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, and other officials are denying the situation’s seriousness. The government announced a possible emergency plan to cut off water supplies to millions of São Paulo residents and businesses for up to four days a week if Billings and other planned water projects don’t come through in time. But instead of the term “racionamento,” or rationing, officials use the softer description “rodizio” or rotation.

Benedito Braga, São Paulo state secretary of sanitation and water resources, rejected charges that the state government has been less than forthright in addressing the shortage’s gravity. “There is no lack of transparency; we are informing about the level of the reservoirs daily,” he said.

Rafael Cortez, a political scientist with São Paulo-based Tendencias Consultant Group, said that the water crisis is being aggravated by rival federal and state political parties seeking to blame each other. For that reason, he said, politicians have avoided acknowledging the possibility of water and power rationing later this year.

“History shows a loss of popularity relevant to any government that takes up rationing. What Alckmin and Dilma are doing is to avoid taking authority for this problem,” Mr. Cortez said, referring to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 at 3:55 am and is filed under Brazil.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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