Leaky pipes & dirty water in São Paulo

Iris writes*

With Brazil owning one-eighth of the world’s fresh water it is surprising that São Paulo has issues with water scarcity. These issues originate from population growth, destruction of surrounding forests and wetlands, leaking infrastructure, and pollution. In combination with climate impacts (such as the 2014-2015 drought), these weaknesses can lead to problems. In 2015, millions of people risked losing their water supply due to “environmental degradation” and “political cowardice”.

Pollution from domestic and industrial sources has reduced water availability. Historically, the growth of São Paulo has gone hand in hand with increasing river pollution, which is due to inadequate sewage collection and treatment, urban sprawl, and a lack of proper solid waste disposal. The Anchieta-Grajaù community is one of the many unregulated slums, where fecal water flows directly into surface water, making this water dangerous to consume. This lack of sanitation leads to diarrhea, general malaise, and headaches amongst many inhabitants in this community. In central São Paulo, the Pinheiros River stinks. Today 25% of the population in São Paulo lacks access to sewage systems. Sabesp, São Paulo’s water and waste company plans to expand its sewage system, which will complement efforts to remove rubbish and improve water quality in the Pinheiros.

Another issue that is necessary to tackle is leakage. According to a survey, São Paulo lost more than 30% of treated water in 2012. These leaks result from distribution failures, inadequate connections, theft, and absence of measurement. According to inhabitants Sabesp is not doing enough to fix the leakages on their doorsteps.

Bottom Line: São Paulo needs to tackle its water scarcity issue by reducing pollution, improving sewage systems and reducing leaks, meaning that Sabesp needs to step up its game.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Leaky pipes & dirty water in São Paulo”

  1. Hello Iris, you raised really interesting points! I was wondering, how the pollution exactly relates to the water scarcity. Do utilities just stop pumping when the rivers are polluted, or do treatment plants not have enough capacity to deal with the huge amount of waste? Also, do policies exist to distribute water to the slums, or do they just drink untreated surface water? Finally, it would be interesting to find out whether there are other sources of water for the people of Sao Paolo than surface water. Since Brazil holds one eighth of the world’s freshwater resources, could it be possible to find and exploit alternative sources, such as groundwater?
    Overall, I think Sao Paolo is a great example to depict institutional barriers to managing water scarcity. You apparently did a lot of extensive research already, and the public health and socioeconomic inequality aspects are really interesting to see as examples for results of bad water management in a water “abundant” region.

    1. Hi Jakob, thanks for your comment! The pollution relates to scarcity, because the river water near Sao Paulo is very costly to make suitable for drinking. Also, since heavily polluted water is hard to clean, the drinking water quality is not very good. Therefore, Sabesp gets its water from further sources, mainly through the Cantereira System which transports water to the city from as far as 80 km away. For the slums that are connected to the water distribution network, there is not always a steady water supply, since water sometimes just doesn’t reach the end of the network. For the slums that are not “properly” connected there is often like one small pipe providing water for the whole community, which then needs to be collected, and often still is contaminated along the way. The final option is indeed collecting untreated surface water or groundwater, since groundwater is the second source of water for Sao Paulo. About 20% of Sao Paulo’s water comes from this source and this could potentially be increased, but then this source risks exploitation (if it doesn’t already). Additionally, groundwater is also facing contamination issues. I hope to have answered your questions!

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