Sao Paulo Running Out of Water Unless Reserve Tapped Now

Latin America’s biggest metropolis may run out of water next month. For some of the 20 million residents across Sao Paulo, the nation’s financial hub, taps are already running dry.

Dilma Pena, chief executive officer of the state-run water utility, told the city council yesterday that supplies are only guaranteed until mid-November unless it can tap the last of the water in its Cantareira reservoir. The four-lake complex that supplies half of Sao Paulo has already been drained of 96 percent of its water capacity amid Brazil’s worst drought in eight decades. Regulators have so far refused to allow Cia. de Saneamento Basico do Estado de Sao Paulo, known as Sabesp, to use the rest on concern it’s mismanaging supplies.

While Pena said there’s been no rationing yet, residents in neighborhoods across the city are already complaining of scattered shortages. Bars near the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, the red-concrete modern-art museum that is a staple on city postcards, say they are serving drinks in plastic cups because they can’t wash dishes.

The 1.5 million-square-meter Ibirapuera park, surrounded by some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, was without water on Saturday, when temperatures reached 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Two restaurants bordering Praca da Se, a square in Sao Paulo’s historic downtown area, are also complaining of water shortages lasting as long as 12 hours a day.

‘We’re Helpless’

“When we call Sabesp, we only get a recording that blames maintenance,” said Karina Martines, owner of Maoz, a vegetarian restaurant near the main business street of Paulista Avenue. “We’re left with the feeling that we’re helpless because Sabesp gives us no information or forecasts.”

Martines said the shortage forced her to close the restaurant for two hours during the dinner rush this week. She had to ask neighboring restaurants with their own storage tanks for buckets of water so she could wash dishes.

Sabesp said it had technical problems which affected the southern area of the city at the beginning of the week. There was also a pipe rupture in the Avenida Paulista region.

The most recent problems were caused by the limits on water withdrawals imposed by the National Water Agency, known as ANA.

“With that, Sabesp has limited operational possibilities,” the company said in an e-mailed statement today. “The high consumption and the limits on water withdrawn slow the systems recovery.”

Contingency Plan

Residents who experienced shortages in the past few days will soon get normal supplies, Marco Antonio Lopez Barros, Sabesp’s superintendent of water production, said in the statement.

On Oct. 10, Sabesp said it would reduce withdrawals of water from Cantareira as part of a contingency plan it delivered to ANA. The agency had said it wanted to see Sabesp’s plan before agreeing to grant permission to tap the last of the so-called “dead reserves,” sediment-filled pools in the center of the reservoir.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures are increasing the need for water. Last week, Sao Paulo recorded heat of 36.7 degrees Celsius, the highest since 1933. At the end of October, rains will become more regular and from November to February they will be in the historical average, according to weather forecaster Climatempo. To help Cantareira recover would take twice the historical average rainfall, according to Climatempo meteorologist Bianca Lobo.

Sabesp, Latin America’s biggest publicly traded water utility, has plunged 26 percent this year, compared with a 2 percent gain in the 20-member Bloomberg World Water Index.

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