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An interdisciplinary look at the drought in São Paulo

by Richard Meckien - published Mar 24, 2014 11:05 AM - - last modified Mar 25, 2014 10:31 AM

Evento "Verão 2013/2014 e Cenários de Estresse Hídrico"The Metropolitan Region of São Paulo (RMSP) has been undergoing the bitter consequences of a prolonged drought, which led the Cantareira water reservoir to beat low levels records. The IEA-USP addressed this water shortage situation in the debate "Summer 2013/2014 and Scenarios of Water Stress" on March 19. The event was part of the celebrations of the Water Week 2014, prior to the World Water Day, celebrated on March 22.

The debate has been organized by a partnership between two of IEA-USP’s research groups: Environment and Society, and Philosophy, History, and Sociology of Science and Technology. They had the support of the Center for Studies in Social and Environmental Governance of USP’s Institute for Energy and Environment (IEE). The meeting has comprised two roundtables, both mediated by Pedro Jacobi, coordinator of IEA’s Environment and Society Research Group.

The exhibitors were Wagner Ribeiro Costa, professor at USP’s Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH), Maurício de Carvalho Ramos, also a professor at FFLCH, Daniela Libório Di Sarno, professor at PUC-SP’s Faculty of Law and vice president of the Brazilian Institute of Urban Law (IBDU), Marcio Automare, organizational development analyst at the Institute of Land of the State of São Paulo (ITESP), and Susana Prizendt, coordinator of the Paulista Committee of the Permanent Campaign Against Pesticides and for Living.

The meeting has addressed the water problem from an interdisciplinary perspective, considering environmental, legal, socio-political, philosophical and food safety aspects. According to Jacobi, the idea was to reflect on the problem of water in the RMSP, but covering broader issues involving, among others, inequalities in access to water, changes in rainfall rates caused by the phenomenon of climate change, institutional barriers and the posture of the government in relation to the prevention and remediation of the problem.

Photos of the event


The debate has been heated up by recent measures that have been studied and taken by the state government of São Paulo in order to try to circumvent the critical situation of the Cantareira reservoir, which currently operates at approximately 15 % of its capacity. Among these measures is the proposal of using water from the Paraíba do Sul River reservoirs to supply the RMSP. When asked about the matter, Ribeiro said that he does not consider the proposal timely, since the suggested river is also undergoing a situation of water stress.

Ribeiro has criticized the emergency works of the state government, which began on March 14 to pump the volume of "dead water" from the bottom of the dams that form the Cantareira reservoir. According to him, this means "to remove the last drop of a water that has been stored for 40 years, stagnant, whose quality is questionable due to the unknown factors associated with it."

Besides, he said that it was a risky move, which can lead to resource depletion in the region. “That is because to saturate the soil again to the point for the dam to refill, much more than the average rainfall rates in the region will be needed, and those were not achieved this summer."


Sarno has pointed out the incongruity of the Brazilian legal system in relation to water resources management as the top reason for the shortage in the country. According to her, although the Federal Constitution provides that the management should be shared between the federal government, the states and the municipalities, there is little dialogue between the parties and the administration of water resources ends up getting fragmented.

"To meet the challenge of shared management, the three [federal, state and municipal] parties need to sit down and discuss. But this step has still not been taken. There are neither vertically talks between the parties nor horizontally ones between institutions," she said.

This fragmentation gets compounded by the mismatch between the division of the federal system, that obeys political criteria, and the division of watersheds, which follows geographic criteria. The watersheds are important because they put another actor in the scene: the Watershed Committees, which comprise the National System for Water Resources Management. Composed of representatives of the various water user sectors, civil society and government organizations, the committees approve the Water Resources Plan for each watershed, arbitrate conflicts over water use, suggest values ​​for the charging of consumption, among others.

According to Sarno, the problem is that none of the management models adopted in the country - municipal management and state management by autarchies or contractors - is consistent with the watershed divisions. "The Committees even do part of the management, but who puts the distribution of water into practice is not them, but managing institutions.”


As for Ribeiro, the biggest obstacle to equate the issue of water in Brazil is the private management of water resources. In the RMSP, for example, the management is done by SABESP, a mixed economy company, publicly listed and traded on the stock exchange, which operates according to the logic of a private institution.

"Is it the function of the state to pay up, profit and speculate based on the commercialization of water resources? No, it is not the function of the state to make money from the water, as done by SABESP," warned Ribeiro, noting the lack of transparency in the management of the company. "Besides the water flows, there should be transparency in relation to financial flows," he pointed out.

As Ribeiro, Automare pondered that a government-linked company as SABESP should not behave like a private company, treating water as a product. He also cited the industry of water sold in gallons, whose growth was affecting groundwater, as an example of the commercial exploitation of water resources.

Sarno also addressed the conflict between public and private interests. According to her, Watershed Committees treat water as a commodity, whose distribution should be equal and the charging should happen only to regulate the consumption. The companies that put management into practice, such as SABESP, treat water as a product for sale.

According to the lawyer, the managers of metropolitan regions and municipalities do not take into consideration the willingness of the watershed in allowing, for example, the expansion of an industrial district that could endanger the water supply on site. "It takes measures to reconcile urban expansion and the infrastructure for distribution of water in terms of quality and quantity," he warned.


Taking a philosophical approach, Carvalho said that the water can be considered from two sets of properties: material ones, linked to biochemical principles, and symbolic ones, related to its immeasurable value to life, making it a symbol of power.

According to him, when considering the symbolic properties, water can be conceived both as a resource - a product to be exploited economically -, as well as a good - something free and not marketable in any way. And it is this conception of a good that should be adopted to tackle the problem of water stress from an ethical perspective.

"Addressing the issue rationally and responsibly involves not putting into practice technoscientific possibilities related to water use that may jeopardize the availability or the material properties of water resources," he said. "If the ethical stance prevailed, there would be no need for rationing and an appeal to the conscience of people would be sufficient," he added.


The panelists drew attention to the low involvement of society in discussions on the management of water resources. According to Automare, water has achieved the last place in the priority list of the citizens of the State of São Paulo: "We have been induced to credit the discussion on the subject to the representatives and forgot to get involved." He also emphasized that "the public has no forum for debate, so the situation is in the hands of technocrats."

Ribeiro has also warned about the paradox that involves the lack of popular participation on the one hand and excess of institutions to manage water on the other. For him, "we have more institutions dealing with water than water itself. There are too much institutions for very little water. And civil society is under-represented within them."


The water problem has also been addressed from the point of view of quality. Addressing the contamination of water resources by pesticides, Prizendt said that the issue should be discussed with a view to replacing the agribusiness, model of conventional production and based on intensive use of pesticides, by agroecology, an alternative model, whose practices intend to maintain the balance of ecosystems and preserve the sources of rivers and the water system as a whole.

According to her, pesticides are the second leading cause of contamination of rivers, a fact that becomes particularly worrying considering that Brazil is world champion in the use of these substances, accounting for one fifth of what is consumed in the world. Moreover, the agricultural sector accounts for about 70 % of freshwater consumption in Brazil, said the environmentalist.