Tale of Two Carwashes Shows Brazil Poor Hurt in Drought: Cities

There are days when Izilda Aparecida is lucky to get a drink out of the tap. Running a carwash? She had to shutter her small business this month until her water service returned.

On the other side of metropolitan Sao Paulo, in the Itaim financial district of South America’s biggest city, Luiz Antonio Navarro has no shortage of Audis and other luxury cars lining up for a cleaning and polish.

The different experiences for neighborhoods -- one poor and one wealthy -- in the same megacity illustrate the disparity Sao Paulo’s 20 million residents face amid Brazil’s worst drought in eight decades.

“I had no idea such a big city could have such water problems,” said Natalia Paula, 19, who bought a storage tank two months ago after rationing hit her neighborhood. “Imagine going to cook for your child and no water comes out of the tap. I was desperate.”

While wealthier neighborhoods aren’t immune to shortages and not all low-income areas lack water, the poor and lower middle class have disproportionally borne the brunt. Residents earning less than 3,620 reais ($1,359) a month -- or five times the minimum wage -- are twice as likely to have experienced water cuts than people making twice as much, according to a survey by polling company Datafolha released in October.

Political Gridlock

A combination of bad planning and bad luck, coupled with political gridlock, has left many Paulistas without water for as long as days at a time. The sprawling city accounts for a third of the gross domestic product in Brazil, which has more water resources than any other country in the world.

Two of Sao Paulo state’s biggest reservoirs, which supply water to Aparecida’s carwash and Paula’s taps, are the hardest hit by the lack of rainfall. Water levels at the Cantareira and Alto Tiete reservoirs, which serve 11 million people, have fallen to 6.7 percent and 10.1 percent of capacity as of today, respectively.

By contrast, the reservoir serving 4.9 million people in neighborhoods including Itaim and Morumbi, where the governor’s palace is located, and the river that feeds it have received enough rainfall to keep levels hovering above 35 percent.

“We’re an island in Brazil,” said Navarro, 67, the owner of the carwash in Itaim. “The crisis doesn’t affect these people.”

Rationing

While Sao Paulo’s state utility, known as Sabesp, says it’s not rationing inside city limits, it’s reducing water pressure at night to avoid leaks and conserve water. That means water isn’t getting to the fringes -- or elevated neighborhoods and utilities in other cities that rely on Sabesp’s water. The company advises people to get water-storage tanks.

That was of no help to Aparecida, who lives in the Guarulhos area, where slums crowd the horizon. The suburb’s local utility, SAAE, has said since the beginning of the year it’s not getting enough water from Sabesp to meet demand. When her plastic tank ran dry, she closed her carwash, her only source of income, until water service returned.

“Rationing is happening, no matter what the authorities” in Sao Paulo city say, she said.

Unlike in California, where fines and restrictions on water consumption are a major part of conservation efforts, Sao Paulo officials until recently shied away from demanding that people stop using so much water.

Who’s to Blame?

As reservoirs dried up, President Dilma Rousseff and Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, of the opposition Social Democrats party, sparred over blame before to the October elections. It was only after both were re-elected that they promised to cooperate and signed contracts for new pipes to integrate systems.

Dilma Pena, chief executive officer of Sabesp, said not pushing for more conservation was an “error,” according to audio of an internal meeting released in October by the daily Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.

“We should have said ’Citizens, save water’ in the media repeatedly,” Pena said. “But we have to follow directions.”

Sabesp, majority-owned by Sao Paulo state, said in an e-mail statement at the time that the executive’s comments were made in an internal meeting about communication strategies.

Estado de S. Paulo newspaper reported Dec. 20 that Pena is stepping down because of health reasons. Sabesp declined to comment.

Leaks

The government could have done more to stop leaks from the water system, said Leo Heller, the United Nations special rapporteur for water and sanitation rights. About 31 percent of treated water escapes from Sabesp’s system -- more than a third caused by illegal siphoning.

“This lack of water wouldn’t happen if the planning was better than it is,” Heller said in a phone interview.

Alckmin’s administration last week announced that it will fine users whose water consumption increases. It also plans to distribute water tanks and kits to prevent leaky faucets. His press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Rousseff’s press office referred questions to Sabesp and Alckmin, saying in a statement that water resources “are the responsibility of states and municipalities.”

The rainy season that started in October and runs through March has provided little relief so far. Weather forecaster Somar Meteorologia predicts precipitation below or at historical levels between December and February in Brazil’s Southeast and Midwest. At the same time, temperatures probably will be above average during the Southern Hemisphere summer, which can boost water consumption.

Floods

When rains do come, inadequate drainage pipes and sewage systems mean neighborhoods across Sao Paulo can’t deal. A Nov. 27 downpour churned up sewage and other pollutants in the Tiete River that intersects Sao Paulo, turning it into a black stain for 100 kilometers, with some stretches foaming up and thousands of dead fish surfacing. Residents of Itaquera, a poor and working-class district where Rousseff inaugurated a 1 billion-real ($375.9 million) World Cup stadium this year, found their houses and businesses flooded when a stream overflowed.

The drought was the subject of a recent music video that went viral. A musician calling himself MC 20 Liters rapped about his use of water as a status symbol in image-conscious Brazil, leaving the tap on just because he could and bathing in mineral water in a golden tub. After the video reached almost 300,000 views, insurance company Unimed revealed the song was a farce: It was part of its campaign to raise awareness of the water woes.

“This is how things are going to be if we don’t grow an ecological conscience,” said Edney Vascurado, Unimed’s head of marketing in Goiania, who coordinated the campaign. “Water is going to become a luxury item, a status symbol to be flaunted.”

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