Water rationing was officially declared last Monday 17 March in the municipality of Guarulhos, meaning, for practical purposes, that the 1.3 million citizens who live there will have running water on alternate days, one day yes then one day no. This has not gone unnoticed in the big metropolis of São Paulo. Guarulhos is one of the municipalities of São Paulo metropolitan area, the one with the biggest population after the capital and which includes the international airport in it, so in just three months’ time thousands of football players, fans and authorities will pass through it.
Guarulhos is mainly supplied from the Cantareira system, the one most affected by the crisis and whose level is already at just 15%. At the rate at which its level is going down, the intake will soon be exposed, preventing the extraction of more water. The state’s public water company, Sabesp, is therefore installing floating pumps, in order to be able to extract the dead volume of water which remains below the level of the reservoir’s intake.
The official reason why Guarulhos started “rodízio” — as rationing is colloquially known in Portuguese — is that it is the municipality that has reduced its consumption the least out of all those supplied by the Cantareira system. However, this technical motive is accompanied by the fact that water distribution in Guarulhos is carried out by the municipality itself, one of the few from the metropolitan area not integrated in the state’s public company, Sabesp. Guarulhos moreover has its own social and political profile, different from that prevailing in São Paulo state, which will undoubtedly position the debate on water centre stage in the forthcoming October election.
The most significant political debate that is taking place during this supply crisis being suffered by São Paulo is not about Guarulhos though, but rather the River Paraíba do Sul. It just so happens that one of the few options to increase the water available in the battered Cantareira system is to bring water from the neighbouring basin of the River Paraíba, which supplies almost the whole of Rio de Janeiro state.
The project consists of interconnecting the basin of the Cantareira system with the headwaters of the São Paulo section of the River Paraíba, which would make it possible to guarantee, with low cost work and a short execution period, an additional contribution of water which would moreover be reversible. This means that at times when Rio lacks water, it could be transported in the opposite direction from São Paulo.
All the technical details have not yet been made public and the project is still being studied by the National Water Agency (ANA), the competent organization for rivers which cross several states, but the governor of Rio de Janeiro was quick to declare that he will not allow any prejudice to the inhabitants and companies of Rio. It is again worth recalling that the governor of Rio, from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), has just broken off his alliance with the Workers’ Party (PT), which does not put him in a very good position with a view to the October election.
To see the two biggest conurbations of Brazil — two mega-cities which, together, total more than thirty million people — competing for water is a great example of where the traditional resource management model takes us. These two cities, with their uncontrolled growth, need to bring water from further and further away, depleting the resources of a wider territory, until one inevitably meets the other. This is not the typical case to which we are accustomed, in which a big city demands resources for itself which the rural environment or medium-sized cities do not exhaust; this is one mega-city against another, living proof that the process of mega-urbanization has a limit, that of the neighbouring city.
None of the important debates about demography, urban development planning, efficient consumption or supply sources can now be developed adequately in Brazil, with the pressure imposed by a supply crisis and such important elections a few months away. All the important players, and especially the elected representatives, are going to be afflicted by a situation in which, whatever they do, they will be criticized and blamed.
Half way between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is the sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, the biggest sanctuary of Latin America, where maybe the prayers for the necessary rain will be answered. Even in this case we should not forget the debate, but rather take advantage of the situation to continue it in a climate of less stress and with the time necessary to reach a broad consensus. Water should not become a weapon of political struggle, but rather politics should be an instrument to guarantee access to water and sanitation, and to guarantee, in short, what is a human right.