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Dealing with Drought in São Paolo, Brazil

Sao Paolo
Sao Paolo

Images of picturesque beaches and lush rainforests (such as the Amazon) often represent Brazil’s breathtaking environment. Mention the term ‘water scarcity’ or drought and few would associate it with this exotic nation.

Brazil contains approximately 12% and 53% of the global and South American freshwater supplies respectively, whilst covering approximately 5% of the globe’s land mass.

In recent times, international attention has been centred on the water plight of São Paulo, a global megacity with over 18 million inhabitants, situated in  the country’s south east. With the city’s overall dam levels  fluctuating between 5 and 20% of maximum capacity in recent months (see graph below of the Cantareira network, which supplies water for the city) , it will ultimately take a monumental effort to ensure that the city’s water reservoirs are not rendered bone-dry by this drought. With access to local water supplies restricted, many are resorting to trucking in water from other parts of the nation. Realistically, this is only a band aid solution, addressing the symptoms rather than the causes.


It is critical that Brazil avoids any further self-inflicted pain or traps. The provision of water for agriculture (in particular a greater consumption of animal protein rather than plant-based proteins) and increasing levels of affluence in general have led to sustainable rates of resource usage. In turn, this has resulted in mass-scale deforestation, which has subsequently affected the overall hydrological across the country.

Another faux pas would be to allow bottled water companies, to exploit the indispensible resource during this crisis. This is the situation in California. Fuelling a demand for bottled water (when it could be avoided) will simply exacerbate the burden on the millions of people struggling to live in meagre (or no income), especiallly those in the city’s favelas (slums).

Overall, what are the most viable solutions? Proposals include a five-day-a-week water rationing scheme, in conjunction with fixing up major leaks within the city’s water distribution network. Water recycling (wastewater treatment) and water harvesting be major elements of a long-term blueprint? Desalination plants could possibly play a role in the future, but the technology still has major shortcomings to be addressed.

Will Brazil (and similar developing nations) learn from the major natural disasters in the recent past, such as the 2005 Amazon Drought, by readily buffering its citizens from droughts? Ultimately, we in the western world are in no position to lament about Brazil’s desire to grow and for its nationals to improve their standards of living: doing so would render us as hypocrits. Notwithstanding this, there is also an onus on developing nations to ensure they develop in an ecologically sustainable manner, whilst simultaneously addressing social and economic requirements for a broader society.

Image: IPAM Brazil

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