Rio to Sao Paulo Plan for Water Cutoffs After Downplaying Crisis

After public officials and utilities downplayed for months the chance Brazil’s three most-populous states will face water rationing, plans to severely limit water use are in the works as reservoirs fall to record lows.

Sao Paulo’s water utility said this week it has a plan to ration water five days a week if heavy rains don’t come soon. Minas Gerais’s governor warned that consumers need to cut use by 30 percent or there’d be mandatory cutoffs. And Rio de Janeiro’s governor said the state is reviewing ways to reduce companies’ usage to prioritize drinking water.

The three states account for 40 percent of Brazil’s population and 53 percent of the gross domestic product. Threats of water shortages come as the federal government is also grappling with plunging commodities prices, fiscal cuts to stave off a credit-rating downgrade and a corruption probe at the state-run oil company. As recently as Jan. 15, Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin promised water rationing wouldn’t happen.

“There has been a lack of transparency at every level of government,” said Juliana Serillo, economist at macroeconomics consultancy MB Associados. If states had been more willing to implement water-saving measures before, “the situation now wouldn’t be so extreme.”

Already water-pressure reductions mean many neighborhoods are reporting that they haven’t been getting the drinking supplies they need for several months.

‘Huge Risk’

The press offices for the Sao Paulo state water resource secretary and Minas Gerais government didn’t respond to e-mail and calls requesting comments. Rio de Janeiro’s press office referred to a speech by Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao on Wednesday in which he said that steps already taken in the past four years will be enough to guarantee supplies, although “drastic measures” could be needed by May if the state doesn’t get enough rainfall.

“These are highly populated areas, representing a large part of the Brazilian economy,” Samuel Barreto, a water specialist at the Nature Conservancy, said in a telephone interview from Sao Paulo “It is a huge risk.”

Sao Paulo, with 40 million people residing across 96,000 square miles -- geographically bigger than the U.K. -- is in the worst situation. The water level in two of its biggest reservoirs, Cantareira and Alto Tiete, which serve 11 million people, have fallen to 5.1 and 10.7 percent of capacity as of Thursday, respectively.

Cantareira will run dry in 145 days if the state doesn’t get at least 50 percent of the historical average of rainfall, Brazil’s National Center for Monitoring and Natural-Disaster Alerts said in a report on Jan 22. Precipitation in January came in 43 percent below the average, the group said.

No Rationing

Even as water supplies dwindle, officials continue to send mixed message about what exactly will be done to ease the crisis.

“We don’t have rationing in the sense that the water network is shut off and then turned back on again tomorrow. We don’t and won’t have it,” Alckmin said Jan. 15. “Now, clearly, there are water restrictions.”

Paulo Massato, metropolitan director of the Sao Paulo state-run water utility, said Jan. 27 that Sabesp has a plan to cut water supplies five days a week if new water infrastructure works to connect reservoirs aren’t ready before supplies run dry. Jerson Kelman, chief executive officer of the utility whose full name is Cia. de Saneamento Basico do Estado de Sao Paulo, said that same day that no plans have been decided yet, but Sao Paulo “must be prepared for the worse.”

‘Red Flag’

In Minas Gerais, the reservoirs that make up the water supply system for Belo Horizonte’s metropolitan region had 70 percent of their capacity in January last year. Now they have 30 percent, said Governor Fernando Pimentel in Jan. 27.

Two of the four reservoirs that supply water to Rio’s state ran dry this month. The Santa Branca and the Paraibuna reservoirs started getting water from the so-called “dead reserves,” sediment-filled pools in reservoirs that need to be pumped to supplement water supplies. Sao Paulo’s Cantareira has been getting water from this layer since June.

“There’s a red flag for all these areas,” the Nature Conservancy’s Barreto said.

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