Saving Sau Paulo

For the residents of Latin America's biggest city, clean drinking water is a luxury - but living in Sau Paulo, Annabel Britton found that community activists have begun to create their own solutions. Illustration by Kirsty Hunter.

Despite being a metropolis of some 21 million people, São Paulo remains a wonderfully green city. Its traffic-choked blocks are punctuated by all manner of foliage and streams of water run down the steep margins of the wide streets.

February is the apex of the rainy season, so each night the hot, highly-pressured skies break into biblical downpours, under which dance carnival-goers, glad of a shower to wash off the sweat and glitter which they’ve accumulated during several days and nights of dancing in the street.

But away from the block parties, many paulistanos are not so concerned with finding their next beer as with getting hold of an even more necessary beverage: water. A “hydric crisis” has gripped Latin America’s biggest city - as well as many others in the world’s rainiest region - for the last two years and as with many crises, those hurt most are also the poorest.

Residents of Favela do Moinho, squashed between two railway lines not far from the Tietê river, subsist off a shaky supply of water siphoned off from the network of SABESP (São Paulo’s water board). Some 600 families drinking, washing, cleaning and eating from a feeble pipeline a few centimetres below the warm dirt - indeed, the unfortunate ones at the end of the pipe don’t actually receive any water at all.

Certainly, life in the Favela do Moinho was much worse before they secured a ‘supply’ in 1995 but the fact that SABESP loses 30% of the supplies in their network via theft, leakage and these clandestine connections points towards bad infrastructure and mismanagement. This is widely held as the main cause of this crisis - and something which academics in ecology and hydrology at the Universidade de São Paulo had warned of since 1977. A policy of putting shareholders before stakeholders, and profits before planning, was ratcheted up a notch in the 1990s when SABESP was partially privatised; 49.7% of its stock is privately held, split between the São Paulo and New York stock exchanges.

A 'hydric crisis' has gripped Latin America's biggest city for the last two years

What would they need to plan for? Well, most obviously, a growing megalopolis and the world’s third biggest city (when both urban sprawl and population size are taken into account). Producing 11% of Brazil’s GDP, it is the economic engine of both the country and the continent: its industries, including agriculture, are responsible for immense water usage. However, beyond this, the biotic heart of Amazonian watershed is threatened by deforestation. In layman’s terms, trees take in water via their roots and then perspire, emitting water into the poetic-sounding ‘rivers in the sky’, which are blown around the continent before falling as rain onto a far-flung American city. Fewer trees means fewer rivers in the sky, and fewer rainy days in São Paulo. This is why the Cantareira system, which supplies roughly half of the city’s population, shrank from 96.2% in 2010 to just 27.2% in 2014, when the crisis was at its apex (it is currently back up to 47.5%, though we are in the middle of the rainy season just now).

A third, more long-term, and perhaps even more difficult to mitigate, factor has been mooted: a culture of ambivalence towards how resources are used. As freelance journalist Mari Galante put it to me, “Brazil has never been through a war”: a make-do-and-mend attitude never proliferated here or came into the national consciousness as it did in Britain. Natural resources are not scarce, least of all water, so Brazilians are not accustomed to using them with care. Benedito Braga, president of the World Water Council in São Paulo, also pointed towards this cultural factor: “Brazilians leave everything to the last minute. Only when the situation is absolutely critical do they start making arrangements, economising water."

However, in the absence of SABESP having a proper grip on the situation, citizens have begun to take action for themselves, with social entrepreneurs creating initiatives to help paulistanos take charge of their own water supply.

A poster promoting Vicinius Pereira's household rainwater capture  concept

A poster promoting Vicinius Pereira's household rainwater capture  concept

Vinicius Pereira, a local musician, has started Movimento Cisterna Já (“movement for water tanks now”) to promote the capture of rainwater in private residences for purposes such as watering plants and cleaning - which can be up to half of a household’s water usage. Flying in the face of a pessimistic assessment of Brazilian attitudes towards natural resources, he claims that “this is not a crisis. I believe this is an opportunity."

Other community movements, such as Existe àgua em SP (“water exists in SP”) and “Rios e Ruas” (“rivers and roads”) aim to map out São Paulo’s almost 500 waterways - not all of which are visible on conventional maps - and empower citizens to renew and look after them.

The manifesto of Rioes e Ruas laments that the paulistano population has been led to believe that the city’s waterways are far from a blessing, but in fact “enemies of the city, bringing bad smells, illnesses and floods”, a belief which has justified the burial of the rivers until they resurface again in the rainy season, sloshing down the streets as I have seen. Together with EcoHack, they created this map, overlaying the city’s rivers and roads so that citizens can locate them, and clean them up together.

Part of EcoHack and Rioes e Ruas' map of Sau Paulo's waterways.

Part of EcoHack and Rioes e Ruas' map of Sau Paulo's waterways.

Existe àgua em SP is more of an amateur effort, led by Adriano Sampaio, a man imbued with passion for guerilla urbanism. Sampaio has explored the city from its affluent centre to the impoverished periphery on his quest: “It’s vital that the different springs and water sources around the city are tested and labelled, so that people know what use each source can safely be put to”. Indeed, following an expedition to Pirituba in the north of the city, Sampaio drank some water so unsafe that he ended up in hospital - he is clearly dedicated to his environmentalism.

People power, social enterprise and collective action have made a difference to many paulistanos

Beyond the location of these hidden waterways, these organisations also wish to exploit the self-cleaning nature of rivers and streams to bring them back to life not just as sources of water but as sources of urban conviviality. Sampaio was first inspired after digging through muddy ground in a park in Pompeia, the neighbourhood in which he lives. Seeing water springing from the ground, he and his friends began to use materials lying around and eventually created two ponds over as many years, which are now brimming with fish and have also imbued the park with new civic life, as it has become a much more pleasant place to hang out.

However, Sampaio’s trip to the hospital following the Pirituba debacle demonstrates the limits of citizen-led environmentalism: - the everyman may be able to locate a water supply, but he is not necessarily capable of grading or filtering it for human consumption. Furthermore, though each household being responsible for itself and using a cistern to collect rainwater may be a lovely idea in theory, stagnant rainwater provides a lovely breeding ground for mosquitoes bearing the old favourites, dengue fever and chikungunya, as well as this season’s newcomer, the notorious zika virus.

People power, social enterprise and collective civic action has made a difference to many paulistanos - before the water crisis and now - but if SABESP and the city, state and federal governments don’t also begin to take seriously the falta d’àgua, citizens will continue to suffer in São Paulo, rainy season or not.