Opinion space about water and its challenges

6 February 2015

Learning from adversity


When I began to write this blog one year ago, I did so talking precisely about the water crisis that São Paulo was experiencing and what, in my opinion, were the true causes of the situation. I am talking in the past because the crisis phase is already behind us, and what we are experiencing now is much worse. It is a situation of general emergency. To summarize, out of the four main systems which supply São Paulo there are two in which the water has gone below the catchment level, and the rest of the water, the so-called ‘dead volume’, is being pumped by means of floating pumps. The rainy season, which is about to end, has only managed to slow down the rate at which the levels are decreasing, but has not at all reversed the trend.

The water – energy nexus

In the neighbouring state of Rio de Janeiro, two reservoirs have also reached ‘dead volume’, which in this case means that they cannot produce electric energy. It is worth recalling that in Brazil over 50% of electricity comes from hydroelectric power stations and that the drought which is affecting the south-eastern states is taking the electric system to the limit of its management and transportation capacity. Such is the situation that on 19 January last it forced the system operator to carry out a controlled blackout which affected seven states, including the most populated, such as São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro.

Good management becomes essential in adverse situations

The reader will find rivers of ink talking about things which should have been done and were not done, prophets and experts who analyze the problem from all viewpoints, but let others bear the responsibility of providing solutions. Today I want to talk to you about good management, about how need is leading the ingenuity of the people at the forefront of this emergency situation to innovate in the sphere of crisis management.

Pressure management

Extreme measures have been applied in pressure management. For some months Sabesp, the water company of São Paulo state, has reduced the pressure of the network for most of the day. This leads to less water loss in the city’s troubled networks and, to a lesser extent, to less direct consumption. This measure, undoubtedly the most controversial due to the service quality problems that it causes, has, however, been the most effective. Sabesp estimates that over half of the reduction in consumption achieved is due to this management, that is to say 7.5 m3/s. With this volume we could supply two cities the size of Barcelona.

Pressure management has made it possible to obtain such a significant reduction in consumption. It would not be possible to achieve a similar effect using a traditional rationing system, that is to say cutting the water supply completely every other day. Sabesp has announced that in order to attain a saving greater than the one that they are obtaining on reducing the pressure it would be necessary to resort to a regime of five days without water then two days with. This is the future that awaits us paulistanos (residents of São Paulo) if the situation does not improve over the coming weeks.

Demand management

Another sphere where extreme measures are being tested is demand management. Several months ago Sabesp introduced a mechanism which rewarded consumers who reduced their consumption significantly. A lower price was thus applied to those whose monthly consumption was lower than that of the previous year, leading to a double reduction in the price to pay. The result was so favourable and situation so critical that, starting from this month, it is supplemented with a penalty for the clients who increase their consumption. A water price double that of the normal rate will be applied to those whose consumption increases by 20%.

It is still too early to know the effect of this new action, but I can assure you that the measure has not gone unnoticed. It may be because of its economic impact on the modest households of the city, or because of the increasing awareness of the population, but in recent weeks the omnipresent subject of conversation has been water consumption and the measures to reduce it.

Learning for the future

Last July, Aqualogy technicians travelled to São Paulo to share their experience in the management of episodes of water shortage, such as the one experienced in Barcelona in 2007, with the state water company Sabesp. In the meeting Sabesp showed a surprisingly high interest in taking advantage of all the experiences and a proactive attitude toward innovation. Sabesp has demonstrated an important capacity for reaction but, above all, great courage on applying unconventional measures which are giving a significant result. The extreme measures adopted in the sphere of demand management and pressure management are generating know-how for the sector which will undoubtedly be taken advantage of in future water crises. We hope that it is moreover of use to overcome the present truly critical situation.


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