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

 
 
 
 

What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

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