Brazilians are raging. Much like in the movies. Sao Paulo’s unsustainable growth strikes again. But this time traffic congestion is not the problem.
What the inhabitants of this mega city are facing is a severe water shortage, in spite of the violent storms that flooded the city in December. Pollution, over pumping and an increase in the number of illegal water tapping all contribute to the problem. Of course, climate change is not making things easier, as changing rainfall patterns worsen an already complicated situation.
At only 5.1% of its capacity, the city’s main reservoir system, Cantareira, is almost dry. Rumors are predicting that as a last-ditch effort, the authorities will propose a water rationing system that would give inhabitants access to service for only two days a week.
This apocalyptical situation looks like a bad Hollywood movie, one in which the salvation scene seems to have been forgotten by those writing the script.
The scariest part is that this is turning out to be a series – with Sao Paulo being just the first of many cities in Latin America to have their citizens’ livelihoods endangered because of poor water management.
The climate-fiction disaster sequel is being written in Mexico City, home to more than 20 million people. The Mexican capital has been using groundwater faster than it can be replenished, polluting and drying its aquifer bed and consequently worsening its historic subsidence issue.
To make matters worse, past solutions to the megacity’s water scarcity have involved exploitation of water basins located in neighboring areas. In the 1950s, for example, the Lerma River was chosen to provide drinking water to the city and still contributes to 15% of the water supply. Nowadays the stream is mostly a dry basin with high levels of hydrogen sulfide– a highly toxic and flammable gas.
Kingston, Jamaica, has also faced water shortages and its main systems of water catchments are under severe pressure during the dry season, forcing the authorities enforce restrictions on water use and find ways to preserve their watersheds from degradation.
The plot is depressing, yet some sustainable initiatives have flourished.
In Mexico, the “Isla Urbana” project is introducing a sustainable way to increase water supply by harvesting rainwater in poor neighborhoods.
In Brazil, as part of the Water Producer concept, farmers are rewarded for safeguarding the lands near the watersheds, thus keeping erosion and pollutants away from the river water.
Still, these water crises require a better script, as insightful ideas such as the ones above are scattered and lack a long-term vision. A stronger governance framework, involving all stakeholders, is needed. A shift in human behavior is crucial.
An innovative step to such behavior change is being brought on by a free app created by Caio Tramontina, a brazilian electrical engineer. The current crisis spurred him to dedicate two months in creating “Quick Bath” (Banho Rapido, in portuguese). The app helps you calculate and then follow sound prompts of when to shut the water off and when to turn it back on during your shower. Since it’s launch, the app user’s medium shower duration has dropped to around 4 minutes and 36 seconds.
So, while we wait for funds to be made available… for infrastructure to be built more efficiently… and for decisive players to agree on an action plan… You and I can make a big difference in our everyday use of water.
We need to change our everyday use of water and understand that this role could be the role of a lifetime.
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