Water Shortage Looming in São Paulo

February 20, 2015

The Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite acquired these two natural-color views of the Jaguari Reservoir in Brazil. The top image shows the area on August 3, 2014 (the most recent cloud-free view of Jaguari); the second image shows the same area on August 16, 2013, before the recent drought began. Jaguari is one of five reservoirs in the Cantareira System, which supplies water to roughly half of the people in the São Paulo metropolitan area.

The Operational Land Imager on the Landsat 8 satellite acquired these two natural-color views of the Jaguari Reservoir in Brazil.  Jaguari is one of five reservoirs in the Cantareira System, which supplies water to roughly half of the people in the São Paulo metropolitan area. NASA

In one of the world’s largest Metropolises –  the future is now.
Imagine the implications as water shortages spread to other key mega-cities, some of them in countries that are politically unstable, or, like Pakistan, nuclear armed.

New York Times:

“We’re witnessing an unprecedented water crisis in one of the world’s great industrial cities,” said Marússia Whately, a water specialist at Instituto Socioambiental, a Brazilian environmental group. “Because of environmental degradation and political cowardice, millions of people in São 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.

“Imagine going three days without any water and trying to run a business in a basic sanitary way,” said Maria da Fátima Ribeiro, 51, who owns a bar in Parque Alexandra, a gritty neighborhood on the edge of São Paulo’s metropolitan area. “This is Brazil, where human beings are treated worse than dogs by our own politicians.”

Some residents have begun drilling their own wells around homes and apartment buildings, or hoarding water in buckets to wash clothes or flush toilets. Public schools are prohibiting students from using water to brush their teeth, and changing their lunch menus to serve sandwiches instead of meals on plates that need to be washed.

Officials are promising ambitious solutions, like new reservoirs. But they are a long way off, and many people in this vast metropolitan region of 20 million are frightened by forecasts at Brazil’s natural disaster monitoring service that São Paulo’s main reservoir system could run dry in 2015.

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 Tietê 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 miles away, may also be adding to São 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.

Military and Security specialists around the world, in both corporate and governmental organizations, know that more chaos is coming.
Jeff Goodell’s current article in Rolling Stone is one of the best summaries so far.

Before climate change became taboo for Republicans, it was possible for even conservative politicians to have rational discussions about the subject. In 2003, under Donald Rumsfeld, former President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, the Pentagon published a report titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” Commissioned by Andrew Marshall, who is sometimes jokingly referred to within the Pentagon as Yoda — and who was a favorite of Rumsfeld’s — the report warned that threats to global stability posed by rapid warming vastly eclipse that of terrorism. Some of the climate science in the report was flawed, but the broader conclusions were not. “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,” the report stated. “Once again, warfare would define human life.”


In the late 1990s, Navy engineers realized that the 13 piers at the base, some dating back to World War II, were reaching the end of their life spans. Because they had been built at a time when nobody gave a thought to sea-level rise, the piers were relatively low to the water. At high tide, the utilities that ran along the underside of the pier decks — electrical, steam, phone, Internet — were often immersed in water, rendering them unusable. “It was not a nuisance problem — it was not a minor operational issue,” says Bouchard. “Sea-level rise was interfering with combat readiness for the Atlantic fleet.”

So far, four new piers have been built, which are higher, stronger and better-designed than the old piers. Bouchard, who was commander while the first new piers were constructed, says “they were built with sea-level rise in mind.” But out on the base, nobody wants to talk directly about spending money to deal with sea-level rise, mostly because they are worried about drawing scrutiny from climate deniers in Congress, who are happy to redline any expenditure with the word “climate” in it. Instead, many people in the military end up talking about the climate similar to the way eighth-graders talk about sex — with code words and suggestive language.

“We didn’t raise the piers because of climate change,” Capt. Rios tells me during my visit to the base. He doesn’t quite wink, but almost.

“Then why did you raise them?” I ask.

“Because we needed new piers. And as long as we were building them, it didn’t cost much more to build them higher.”

23 Responses to “Water Shortage Looming in São Paulo”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    So what if Sao Paulo runs out of water and 20 million people suffer? It’s ~4750 miles from where I live in northern VA, and I could spend days looking for someone here that cares a rodent’s rear end about Sao Paulo (or even knows where it is).

    In fact, in this state that is in many ways still struggling to exit the 19th. century and enter the 20th., not many people are even concerned about what’s happening in Hampton Roads and the implications for national security and Virginia’s economy. Federal civilian and military expenditures are very important to VA—-we rook a big revenue hit from sequestration.

    I’ve “visited” the Norfolk naval base and toured the Nimitz and other ships docked there. A huge and impressive facility. Have also spent time “vacationing” at Virginia Beach, another area under threat from climate change.

    Anecdote time: While in the USMC summer of ~1961, was sunning on a blanket on a near-deserted VA Beach with a bikini-clad girlfriend. Heard a loud noise and looked up to see a gray Navy helicopter hovering over the water 100 feet out and 50 feet up. They were always going up and down the coast “training” and wasting gas that could better have been spent buying ammo for the USMC. This chopper interrupted that difficult task so that the squids in the back could ogle my girl and behave obscenely. They could tell I was USMC by my proper haircut and lean and mean body, something few squids possessed, so they felt free to behave badly. My girl loved the attention and even encouraged them a bit, but I drove them off with an extended middle finger on one hand and a finger pistol on the other (along with some less polite gestures suggesting they were devotees of onanism). That fun little scene will likely not be possible 100 years from now.

    Back to business—-a great article from Rolling Stone. I am always amazed at what a great job they do addressing the “great problems of our times”, but I wonder who is paying attention to them? Should we buy Inhofe a subscription? Can he read?

  2. Phillip Shaw Says:

    The situation in Sao Paulo is a good example of why ‘soiling one’s own nest’ is always a bad idea – but we shouldn’t be complacent that it can’t happen here in the US. Look at the current situation in the western states – millions of people are dependent on the snowpack and on major reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell for urban and agricultural water supplies.

    From the abstract of the report “OBSERVED CHANGES IN THE SIERRA NEVADA SNOWPACK: POTENTIAL CAUSES AND CONCERNS” : “Since 1930, there has been a trend toward earlier snow mass peak timing by 0.4 days per decade. The trend towards earlier timing also occurs at most individual stations. The majority of stations have experienced simultaneous reductions in April 1 snow water equivalent.” and “Given scenarios of warming in California, we can expect to see acceleration in the peak timing trend; this will reduce the warm season storage capacity of the California snowpack.”

    There are several good sites for monitoring the status of western reservoirs. Today, Lake Mead is 41.62% full (130 feet below full pool), and Lake Powell is 45.47% full (107 feet below full pool) and is dropping at the rate of a foot every ten days. And these conditions are at the end of the western ‘wet’ season heading into the drier spring and summer. If Lake Mead drops another 15 feet mandatory water rationing kicks in, and if it drops 90 feet from current levels the intakes start sucking air.

    Contractually, California has dibs on the lion’s share of the Colorado River water. What will happen if the good people of Las Vegas are told that their water allotment from Lake Mead will be cut off so that water can still be piped to Los Angeles? There is no ‘Plan B’ for supplying enough water for 600,000 residents plus tourists. Close all casinos and resorts? Evacuate non-essential residents? Armed ‘posses’ taking control of the pump stations to keep the water flowing? Federal intervention? I think every drought scenario gets pretty ugly pretty quickly.

    • >What will happen if the good people of Las Vegas are told that
      > their water allotment from Lake Mead will be cut off so that
      > water can still be piped to Los Angeles? There is no ‘Plan B’
      >for supplying enough water for 600,000 residents plus tourists.

      Population of Las Vegas proper is currently around 610,000, but when you include the immediate suburbs it’s over 2 million. I lived in Las Vegas from 1975 to 1979 and went to university there. Human inhabitants of the entire metropolis at that time totaled 200,000 – in other words, there has been a 10 fold increase in population in the past 40 years. Even when I lived there, some environmentalists were talking about future water shortages, but were brushed off by politicians and pro-growth busineses saying “bah, we’ve got enough water to last another 40 years.”

      That’s the problem with time – it just refuses to stand still.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        And that ten-fold increase in population in 40 years sounds impressive until you realize how small the base was at the start. California’s population has “only” doubled in the same time span—doesn’t sound like much, but that’s nearly 20 million more people, and the big impact on Colorado river water lies there.

        The math is misleading, just as is the math some Crockers use when they talk about the RATES of increase of renewables. In the meantime, fossil fuel use declines only slowly from a huge base.

        Sao Paulo has 20 million people, 1/10 of Brazil’s population, and is likely headed for disaster one day, even if it gets by this present water crisis. As I said in my first comment, it’s 4750 miles away and I’ll feel bad for them as I say “better them than me” and and go shopping like a good American.

        What really worries me are “…..the implications as water shortages spread to other key mega-cities, some of them in countries that are politically unstable, or, like Pakistan, nuclear armed”. Like China and India in addition to Pakistan? And has everyone seen the pictures of the “iron curtain” fence that India has built along its entire border with Bangladesh? No mine fields, yet, but I’m sure they’re thinking about it.

  3. Catholic country, over population. Not very complicated.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Does that explain the situation in California? Too many Catholics?

      And since you brought up religion, the Seahawks coach is reportedly being recruited by the Vatican as a special consultant. They want to know how one can get one hundred million people to stand up and shout “Jesus Christ!” at the same time.

  4. andrewfez Says:

    I like the guy with the Anarchy tattoo, apparently mad that a centrally planned service is in trouble secondary to poor central planning. It’s like the guy that has the signs that says, ‘Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare!!’.

  5. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.

  6. redskylite Says:

    Fortunately mankind is an adaptive and inventive creature and Brazil can learn from other parts of the world who’s natural state is drought where water is a precious and valuable commodity.
    Maybe we need to learn more respect for the life-supporting liquid, which we see no problem contaminating in industrial processes such as fracking (in much the same dispassionate way we see no problem from venting methane and CO2 into our atmosphere).

    Here’s a low tech, low cost community life saver for drought conditions, which was designed specifically for rural communities in Ethiopia that lack access to safe drinking water:


    • andrewfez Says:

      Wow – those pull in 50 to 100L/day for a $1,000 tower. That might be good for gardening or farming too, if you had some type of delivery system:

      75L –> 1 in. * 4576 in.^2 –> 1 in. * [67in x 67in] –> 1 in. * ~[5.5ft x 5.5ft]

      So in 1 day the thing could water a 5.5ft by 5.5ft square with 1 inch of water. Thusly in 15 days, a [82.5ft x 5.5ft] rectangle could be watered with the equivalent of 1 inch of rain, or in other words a 21.3ft x 21.3ft square could get the equivalent of 2 inches of rain per month with the apparatus.

      Well, maybe not so good, as you’d need 96 of them to cover 1 acre, in order to provide the equivalent of 2 inches of rain per month (or 48 to provide 1 inch. of rain per month). But if the wind didn’t blow the thing down, it’d be good for some backyard gardening at least.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in Africa although (for those folks who like misleading graphs) its RATE of increase in GDP per capita is among the highest at present). The per capita income is about $1000, so it might take a family a long while to save up for a tower. And Ethiopia as a whole gets a fair amount of rain, 40+ inches, nearly as much as the Mid-Atlantic (except that they do have a three month span every year that is very dry). The tower is a good idea, but a bit impractical except for “safe drinking water”.

        PS The towers do exactly what the trees in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest do. Maybe if people left the trees standing rather than cutting them down and burning them, there’d be better “natural” water management going on. And “fog catchers” have been around for quite a while—-in the Altacama, for instance, where it may not rain for years.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          PS I forgot to say that this “tower” looks to be more complicated, even “elegant”, and likely much more costly than the alternatives. My crap detectors are telling me there’s a bit of Solar Roadway type marketing hype here.

          More than you want to know about fog catching. Check out the “hive” design.

          Click to access FOGDEW2010-89.pdf

          • redskylite Says:

            Well you may be right..There is a facebook page on the project progress and if you are interested you can follow the activities. I prefer to think that the Italian Architects are promoting the project and scraping money together to help the rural communities, in a similar way that Jason Box (and Peter Sinclair) scrapes money together to perform the “Dark Snow” project.

            Maybe I am wrong to think there is some good in the world. But I wouldn’t think con artists would pick on Ethiopia to make their ill gotten gains. The Smithsonian report they cost around $500 per unit (not $1000 as reported in the Green Prophet), I’m sure a prestigious scientific community like them may be just as gullible as me.

            We would hope that the Ethiopian government would sponsor desalination, but that does not seem to be the case.

            “In rural Ethiopia, women and children walk up to six hours to collect water. Most people collect water from shallow, unprotected ponds which they share with animals. Other people collect water from shallow wells. Both of these sources are subject to contamination as rain water washes waste from surrounding areas into the source. The jugs women use to carry water back to the village weigh up to 40 pounds! Often, young children are left at home while their mother and older siblings collect water and their fathers work.

            In the last 20 years, Ethiopia has experienced recurring droughts followed by food shortages and famines. During times of drought, water-related diseases are rampant. Surface water sources such as springs and ponds dry up. Remaining water sources are heavily contaminated by environmental waste, such as human and animal excreta, which is washed in when it does rain. The stagnant water serves as a breeding place for mosquitoes.

            In times of drought, there is often not enough water available for people to bathe regularly. As a result, community members, especially children, suffer from scabies and eye infections. During these times, in an effort to conserve water, hand-washing after defecation or before eating is rarely practiced. Diarrheal and water-related diseases are among the principle causes of death in young children.”

          • dumboldguy Says:

            It is politically incorrect to suggest that the average Ethiopian is “worth less” than someone in the developed countries of the West. It is also factually incorrect—IMO, the humblest Ethiopian has more “value” than Rush Limbaugh, James Inhofe, Mitch McConnell, the Fox Newsies, and many of the mindless free-market conservatives that are driving the disaster that is occurring on the planet.

            That doesn’t change the fact that when “Doctor Nature” is forced to perform triage on the Earth’s inhabitants, a large number of the Ehuopians will be among the “losers”, and that’s too bad. Reread what you quoted about the conditions in Ethiopia and understand that when the SHTF, folks like Rush and the Fauxies will be hiding somewhere comfortable because they can afford it, and the Repugnants in Congress will let the government they hate take care of them. The Ethiopians will likely lose most of their population, “fog towers” or not.

            And don’t be putting yourself down and showing a thin skin with things like “I’m sure a prestigious scientific community like them may be just as gullible as me”.

            You are just too fine a human being to understand and accept what is really going on, and you need to spend more of your research time on history, economics, business, and human population dynamics. That would help you better understand the whole picture regarding the root causes of AGW and the difficulties we face dealing with it. You have the science down quite well and provide us with much food info, but that’s not where the real answers lie (if there are any anywhere).

          • redskylite Says:

            “incorrect to suggest that the average Ethiopian is “worth less” than someone in the developed countries of the West. “”

            Isaac Asimov::
            The Earth faces environmental problems right now that threaten the imminent destruction of civilization and the end of the planet as a livable world. Humanity cannot afford to waste its financial and emotional resources on endless, meaningless quarrels between each group and all others. there must be a sense of globalism in which the world unites to solve the real problems that face all groups alike.

            There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don’t come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity. ”

            Too true, this music video sums up my feelings on that, far better than any words of mine….

        • andrewfez Says:

          I was thinking more along the lines of personally not having to pay a water bill to grow food out back (tomatoes seem to suck up a lot of water, twice daily, in pots, when the fruit is near and at maturity), or for use during droughts in CA, TX, etc. I guess it works better during fog conditions then.

          I also like spiral water pumps:


          And water hammer pumps:

    • j4zonian Says:

      Can…. yes. Will? Hmmm.

      Some Mayan city-states in relatively arid regions survived while some similar ones in more water-rich areas that were then struck by drought collapsed. They could have learned. Didn’t.

      Look at all the wonderful, wise, smart, adaptive, fascinating, healthful, profound, moving things some people know but most aren’t learning now and you may have second thoughts about your view, not of humanity, but humans in civilization.

  7. redskylite Says:

    Stanford University report (in Environmental Research Letters) that many Cities are vulnerable to running out of water, even if Climate Change is not considered.

    So why are we allowing using it in such a cavalier fashion by industrial processes like fracking. ???


  8. Peter,

    a fb friend of mine who lives 6 months out of the year in Brazil (and is a big admirer of this blog) says the image in this post is not from brazil and wanted me to let you know. I tagged him in it on fb and he says he removed the tag because friends of his in Brazil would be offended by the image. I wanted to pass this on to you respectfully so you would know.


    Peter A. Dimitriou

    • dumboldguy Says:

      As a long-time member of P.O.O.P (People Offended by Offended People), may I pass on respectfully that IMO your friend should find bigger things to worry about than a picture that is “wrong” (or find friends who are less easily offended).

      Allegedly wrong, that is—-I too had a vague feeling that the folks in the pic didn’t particularly “look Brazilian”, but until you or your friend DOES identify the locale, it will do to illustrate the message of this post as a symbol of protest and anger.

      Let’s not forget that Brazil is the home of huge and quite violent protests-riots-demonstrations—–a million plus people at times—and over things like soccer, teaching conditions, and prisons (where people were decapitated and thrown off roofs—prisons are full of not-very-nice people). All shown on TV worldwide and we are upset about something on fb? Please!

  9. dumboldguy,

    not every comment needs your input. My friend came to me politely and I simply passed on his polite comments. give it a rest. Americans have to learn not to be so rude then we might have more friends.


    • dumboldguy Says:

      A requirement for membership in P.O.O.P. is that one must swear a solemn promise to try at every turn to counter the epidemic of self-centered “offendedness” that is consuming the country. And here you are—-being offended by my being offended by your friend being offended. I must honor my oath and respond.

      I wonder if anyone else here sees the irony in you stating “Americans have to learn not to be so rude then we might have more friends”, and then rather rudely telling me that “not every comment needs your input” and telling me to “give it a rest”. You don’t want to be my friend?

      (And America doesn’t need to make friends the “old-fashioned way”. As the world’s last remaining superpower and the main “pusher” of free-market capitalism, we will MAKE THEM all like us. Just as Bush and company made the Iraqis like us.)

  10. cartoonmick Says:

    With more and more of us on this rock each day, our diminishing water resources’ are being stretched even further.
    The worsening effects of climate change make the problem larger than is really evident.
    Whilst we must leave the question of supply in the hands of our political masters, each of us must do our best to contain our usage.
    Government must also help with the question of demand, as shown in this cartoon . . . .



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