Water War Amid Brazil Drought Leads to Fight Over Puddles

Brazil’s Jaguari reservoir has fallen to its lowest level ever, laying bare measurement posts that jut from exposed earth like a line of dominoes. The nation’s two biggest cities are fighting for what little water is left.

Sao Paulo state leaders want to tap Jaguari, which feeds Rio de Janeiro’s main source. Rio state officials say they shouldn’t suffer for others’ mismanagement. Supreme Court judges have summoned the parties to Brasilia for a mediation session this week.

The standoff in a nation with more water resources than any other country in the world portends further conflicts as the planet grows increasingly urban. One in three of the world’s 100 biggest cities is under water stress, according to The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

“It’s unusual in that it’s two very large cities facing what could be a new, permanent conflict over the allocation of water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a research organization in Oakland, California. “It’s a wake-up call that even places we think of as water-rich have to learn to do a better job of managing what’s ultimately a scarce resource. Nature doesn’t always cooperate with us.”

While Rio has so far remained mostly unaffected by the country’s worst drought in eight decades, that’s not the case for its neighbor to the south. More than half the Paulistas in a Datafolha poll last month said they had been without water at least once in the previous 30 days.

Resisting Restrictions

Even so, Sao Paulo has resisted restrictions that states like California have enforced, including prohibiting restaurants from serving water except when asked and allowing homeowners to water lawns only on specified days.

Walk around Sao Paulo’s main financial district and it’s common to see shop owners hosing sidewalks and vehicles waiting at car washes. In other parts of the city and state served by different reservoirs that are all but used up, water has already been cut off for days at a time.

On a recent afternoon in a Sao Paulo suburb, Maria Aparecida Lopes and her three-year-old son waited for the bus -- and for rain. Forecasters had predicted storms and Lopes, hoping they were right, held an umbrella.

She said her family went a week without water this month and was forced to shower at a neighbor’s house, where a relative brought over some water. When the taps started running again, Lopes scrambled to fill tanks and plastic jugs before another cutoff.

Trust

“I trust Saint Peter more than I trust the politicians,” she said.

It rained later that day, so much so that Sao Paulo’s emergency-management center issued flood warnings. The rainfall kept reservoir levels stable for a few hours. When the storm passed, water levels began falling again.

Sao Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin and the state-run water utility Cia. de Saneamento Basico do Estado de Sao Paulo, known as Sabesp, this month proposed 3.5 billion reais ($1.4 billion) of projects to address the crisis, including a plan to link Jaguari to Cantareira, a four-lake reservoir complex that serves almost a third of greater Sao Paulo city’s 20.9 million residents.

The project “can also be used to meet Rio state requirements in the future,” Sabesp said in e-mailed comments.

Jaguari, whose 56 square kilometers are fed by the river of the same name, lies between the two cities. It’s about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Sao Paulo and 300 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro.

Cracked Earth

The drought has turned Cantareira into a bed of cracked earth. What’s left are sediment-filled pools in the center -- so-called dead reserves -- that were previously untappable until Sabesp built 3 kilometers of pipes extending to the pools to drain the water. Even that extra water is almost at an end.

“It’s good to remember that the Jaguari dam is in Sao Paulo and was built with Sao Paulo’s resources,” state Water Resources Secretary Mauro Arce told reporters Nov. 12. “All these years, we’ve never used a single liter of water. What we’re asking for is small.”

Electric utility Cia. Energetica de Sao Paulo added to the furor after it reduced water flows in August from the dam that regulates the flow from the Jaguari reservoir to Paraiba do Sul, the river serving Rio. The company known as Cesp was later forced to restore water flows and fined 5.4 million reais. Cesp said in an e-mailed response to questions that it's disputing the fine.

That episode is a “scar that could be difficult to heal,” said Rio Environment Secretary Luis Portinho. Rio officials are concerned that the 8,000 liters per second that Sao Paulo wants could turn into much more, threatening supplies to Rio that are also at a historic low. About 11.9 million people live in the metropolitan region of Rio city.

Seeking Alternatives

“Sao Paulo is facing a crisis that’s much worse than Rio because of a lack of planning,” he said in an interview. “They have other alternatives.”

Alckmin, Sao Paulo’s governor, and Sabesp have said that drinking supplies are guaranteed and that the rainy season, which typically runs from October to March, will replenish reservoirs without having to resort to rationing.

The project to link reservoirs was challenged by a federal prosecutor in Rio and will be mediated by the Supreme Court in Brasilia on Nov. 27. It’s still possible to reach a deal, said Vicente Andreu, the head of the federal water regulator known as ANA.

‘Sensitive Issue’

“This is a sensitive issue for Rio de Janeiro, because the Paraiba do Sul is its only basin,” Andreu said this month. “We believe that the technical solution is on track to being concluded, making viable the transfer and giving Rio a procedure in the basin to increase security.”

Jairo Moscoso, a 60-year-old rancher, knows nothing of the water war between the two economic powerhouses, which provide more than 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

As he ties his horse to a tree along the bank of the Jaguari reservoir and looks out beneath the brim of his leather hat, Moscoso only knows that something is wrong. Never during the three decades that he’s made this three-day religious pilgrimage past the reservoir has he seen the water so low.

“The water was always up here, I’ve never seen it like this,” Moscoso said. “There was water for the horses to drink, to fill buckets and bathe them.”

They’ll need the water on the final two days of a journey that will bring Moscoso and his group to their destination: the Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida, in the town of the same name, the world’s largest Catholic church outside of Vatican City. It has space for 35,000 people.

As the nation’s patroness saint, the locals say Our Lady of Aparecida unites all of Brazil.

For now, the river that the church looms over will continue to divide Rio and Sao Paulo.

For related news: Water Crisis Seen Worsening as Sao Paulo Nears ‘Collapse’

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