Droughts are nothing new. So why didn't São Paulo's water provider have a back-up plan?

A water protester on the outskirts of the city. Image: Getty.

São Paulo’s ongoing water crisis has left many of the city’s 20m or more residents without tap water for days on end. Brazil’s largest metropolis is into its third month of water rationing, and some citizens have even taken to drilling through their basements to reach groundwater. Most commentators agree that the crisis is to blame on multiple factors, but few have questioned the role of the water company in charge: Sabesp.

The utility, responsible for water and waste in São Paulo and the surrounding state of the same name, has clearly failed its public service remit. Yet, it’s not even clear whether public service is the highest priority for part-privatised Sabesp, whose directors have just awarded themselves bumper bonuses despite millions of their customers going thirsty. São Paulo’s water will go from crisis to crisis so long as Sabesp prioritises profits over long-term investment.

Clearly there are human-induced environmental factors at play: climate change, deforestation of the Amazon, pollution, as well as overconsumption. The pressures we put on nature are likely to increase water shortages worldwide, perhaps eventually leading to conflicts and wars.

But droughts are nothing new. Historical records going back hundreds of years show how cities and regions have struggled with extreme water shortages. Periods without rain happened long before our current struggles with climate change. But if that is the case, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of water utilities to plan for such events, putting in place contingency measures to manage possible water shortages?

Previous water levels are marked on the pillars of a bridge over the Atibainha reservoir. Image: Getty.

São Paulo’s extraordinary growth in recent decades has overloaded the Cantareira, the city’s water supply system. But the rapid increase in water usage was hardly a surprise; it’s something that could have been managed and planned for. Sabesp has failed to do exactly that.

A profit-making public monopoly

One of the world’s largest water utilities, Sabesp was founded as a public institution in 1973. Since part-privatisation in 1994 the state of São Paulo has maintained at least half of the company’s voting capital, though shares are also traded on the New York and São Paulo stock exchanges.

While The Economist and others were keen to point out that Sabesp is “majority-owned by the state government”, this doesn’t tell the whole story. The utility is neither a public organisation concerned with providing a public service, nor a private company facing competition from other companies and controlled by regulatory agencies. Just like the “natural monopolies” enjoyed by water companies in the UK, Sabesp has a publicly guaranteed monopoly, yet its profits are part-privatised – earlier this year it paid out R$252m (US$83m) in dividends.

Residents collect rainwater in buckets. Image: Getty.

São Paulo’s water is just one of many public utilities that have been privatised throughout the world over the past few decades. Governments have followed the ideological belief that, in order to conserve and manage water properly, it is essential to put a price on what used to be a public good. In 1992, the UN adopted the Dublin Principles, declaring that putting a price on water and establishing a “participatory approach” – which is about involving users, planners and policy-makers at all levels – was the best way to reach a sustainable and equitable governance of water. The principles were quickly adopted by Brazil’s government, and implemented first in, you guessed it, São Paulo.

"Many of the necessary measures to prevent the current crisis were not implemented because they would be unprofitable to Sabesp’s shareholders"

The Dublin Principles call for the establishment of “basin committees”, formed of government, water companies, local residents and civil society. These committees are supposed to be responsible for deciding on water use in a particular watershed. Yet, 23 years after this mechanism was supposedly implemented by Law 7663 in São Paulo – and after 17 years of a similar rule at the national level – we still do not know who participated in these committees. On paper these committees exist, but in practice they are not empowered by state structures.

Dysfunctional governance in São Paulo state has left the part-privatised utility, Sabesp, to mainly follow the principles of the market and the interests of its private shareholders. This inevitably skews its strategy towards the short-term.

When deciding whether to make the necessary investments to prepare for possible water shortages, Sabesp has had to choose whether to safeguard the public supply or increase the value of its shares. The company did invest US$4bn from 2005-2013, but that is still not enough. Many of the necessary measures to prevent the current crisis – such as upgrading the Cantareira system – were not implemented because they would be unprofitable to Sabesp’s shareholders .

The company’s lack of transparency since the crisis kicked off highlights its planning failure. For many months Sabesp denied that water was being rationed. Then state governor, Geraldo Alckmin, acknowledged that there was lack of water, but said they were “isolated and private” cases. Then a bonus offered to those who economised water in their daily use, later turned into a fine for those who “waste” water.

The most essential resource of all has now become a struggle in São Paulo. And ever-deepening inequality has turned a water crisis into a social and economic crisis – communities on the periphery of the city and slums were inevitably the first to have their water rationed.

Responsibility for this crisis lies with Sabesp and two decades of running water supply as a for-profit service. It is a failure of public-private partnership. As climate change and other environmental factors make water crises more likely, we better rethink the way water is managed worldwide.

Steffen Böhm is Professor in Management and Sustainability, and Director, Essex Sustainability Institute at University of Essex.

Rafael Kruter Flores is Lecturer in Administration and Organization Studies at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

 
 
 
 

Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.