Wednesday, February 25, 2015

When the Taps Run Dry, Where Do You Go?

Sao Paulo Riots

Imagine telling the residents of Toronto that they have to flee the city and travel elsewhere in search of water.  Well something along those lines may be in store for the millions of residents of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo.

As south-east Brazil grapples with its worst drought in nearly a century, a problem worsened by polluted rivers, deforestation and population growth, the largest reservoir system serving Sao Paulo is near depletion. Many residents are already enduring sporadic water cut-offs, some going days without it. Officials say that drastic rationing may be needed, with water service provided only two days a week.

Behind closed doors, the views are grimmer. In a meeting recorded secretly and leaked to the local news media, Paulo Massato, a senior official at Sao Paulo's water utility, said that residents might have to be warned to flee because "there's not enough water, there won't be water to bathe, to clean" homes.

"We're witnessing an unprecedented water crisis in one of the world's great industrial cities", said Marussia Whately, a water specialist at Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian environmental group. "Because of environmental degradation and political cowardice, millions of people in Sao Paulo are now wondering when the water will run out."

For some in this traffic-choked megacity of futuristic skyscrapers, gated communities and sprawling slums, the slow-burning crisis has already meant no running water for days on end.

...Experts say the origins of the crisis go beyond the recent drought to include an array of interconnected factors: the city's surging population growth in the 20th century; a chronically leaky system that spills vast amounts of water before it can reach homes; notorious pollution in the Tiete and Pinheiros rivers traversing the city (their aroma can induce nausea in passers-by); and the destruction of surrounding forests and wetlands that have historically soaked up rain and released it into reservoirs.

Deforestation in the Amazon River basin, hundreds of kilometres away, may also be adding to Sao Paulo's water crisis. Cutting the forest reduces its capacity to release humidity into the air, diminishing rainfall in southeast Brazil, according to a recent study by one of the country's leading climate scientists.

Officials also point to global warming. "Climate change has arrived to stay", Geraldo Alckmin, the governor of Sao Paulo state, said in February. "When it rains, it rains too much, and when there's drought, it's way too dry."

Imagine going three days at a stretch without fresh water.  The UN calculates we need 20-liters a day just for basic hydration, cooking and sanitation.   Studies have found that we in the developed world use the toilet about 5-times daily which consumes 34-liters per day for low-flow toilets up to 72-liters per day for older toilets (some are much higher).  That makes it pretty tough for a family living in a high-rise apartment to just meet their basic sanitation needs unless everyone starts emptying their chamber pots over the balcony.  

Protesters Swarm Rio
Unrest is building as would be expected, anti-government riots breaking out every now and then in Sao Paulo, Rio and more than 100-other Brazillian towns and cities.. 20-million people can't live this way.  How do you relocate many millions of internally displaced people?  Where do they go?  Where will they find services and housing much less jobs and schools and everything else that supports modern life?  

Brazil may become the poster child for this sort of First World problem.  And the Third World is also reeling from water shortages.

When Khawaja Muhammad Asif, [Pakistan's] Minister of Defense, Power, and Water (yes, that is one ministry), warned that the country’s chronic water shortages could soon become uncontrollable, he was looking on the bright side. The meagre allotment of water available to each Pakistani is a third of what it was in 1950 . As the country’s population rises, that amount is falling fast.

...Nowhere, however, is the situation more acute than in Brazil, particularly for the twenty million residents of São Paulo. “You have all the elements for a perfect storm, except that we don’t have water,” a former environmental minister told Lizzie O’Leary, in a recent interview for the syndicated radio show “Marketplace.” The country is bracing for riots. “There is a real risk of social convulsion,” José Galizia Tundisi, a hydrologist with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, warned in a press conference last week. He said that officials have failed to act with appropriate urgency. “Authorities need to act immediately to avoid the worst.” But people rarely act until the crisis is directly affecting them, and at that point it will be too late.

Feeding a planet with nine billion residents will require at least fifty per cent more water in 2050 than we use today. It is hard to see where that water will come from. Half of the planet already lives in urban areas, and that number will increase along with the pressure to supply clean water.

...The result of continued inaction is clear. Development experts, who rarely agree on much, all agree that water wars are on the horizon. That would be nothing new for humanity. After all, the word “rivals” has its roots in battles over water—coming from the Latin, rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another.” It would be nice to think that, with our complete knowledge of the physical world, we have moved beyond the limitations our ancestors faced two thousand years ago. But the truth is otherwise; rivals we remain, and the evidence suggests that, until we start dying of thirst, we will stay that way.


Kirbycairo said...

I highly recommend the novel "And Still the Earth" by Ignacio Brandao. It is a Brazilian novel written in the seventies that anticipated Global Warming and its effects on Brazil. It was recently reissued for the first time since the 80s and is easily available. It is the most remarkable and disturbing book and should be required reading in our high schools because it is a picture of the future.

Steve said...

@mound suprisingly the rich neighbourhoods are doing just fine. It seems their resevors are full.

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks, Kirby, it sounds like an Abe Books find.

@ Steve - just the formula for mass riots, the sort of grievance even the poor won't tolerate.

Anonymous said...

And...what is the world´s population....? How much water would that take on a daily basis? The questions doesn´t mean I don´t know the answer....just saying. That is the way it has to be put forward in oder for some sort of intelligence to come to the fore. Anyong

The Mound of Sound said...

No argument on the population issue here, Anyong. It's another gear in an incredibly destructive machine - modern civilization. The world has added 3-billion people going back to the days of Brian Mulroney. Let that sink in for a minute. It's astonishing. Even as we add these new mouths, their per capita consumption steadily increases. You introduce those two, massively expansive forces into an entirely finite world, our one and only biosphere. Then we apply to it our current civilizational operating system, free market capitalism founded on perpetual, exponential growth, which is the match to gasoline.

Oh well, at least we got to enjoy the 60s.