Sao Paulo combats crippling water shortage

All this should be underwater: the Jaguari dam, 100km from Sao Paulo. Image: Nelson Almeida/AFP.

Brazil is known for many things: football stars, samba, its powerful alcoholic beverage known as “cachaça”, and of course, the vast green expanses of the Amazon Rainforest. But in Sao Paulo, a different image is emerging in the face of the region’s prolonged drought: bone-dry reservoirs and an alarming water crisis that threatens the city’s residents.

Sao Paulo faced a severe drought in 1930, and another in 1953. The latter create the political pressure to build the Cantareira reservoir system, which was completed in 1976, and which today supplies half of the water used by the city’s residents. That system helped lay the groundwork for Sao Paulo’s explosive growth, taking it from 2m people in 1950 to over 11m in the city proper today, and nearly 22 million in the metropolitan area. The system helped to stabilise the water supply for the growing city. But the additional residents also made the city more vulnerable to future droughts.

The current crisis early this year. By February, officials at Sabesp, the company responsible for the city’s water management in Sao Paulo, were aware that rainfall during the previous few months was much less than normal: water reserves in the Cantareira system had already dropped to 16 per cent of full levels, meaning that further drought could wipe out the system’s reserves entirely. The company, in conjunction with Brazil’s National Water Agency, began offering clients an incentive: use 20 per cent less water, and be charged 30 per cent less than the regular rate.

Despite these efforts, the water shortage only intensified. Later that month, the international press began to take notice, initially in the form of a Bloomberg report on the threat the drought posed for Sabesp. Rain levels remained low, sparking concerns as the World Cup kicked off. And a graph produced by the newspaper Estado do Sao Paulo in May showed that plummeting rain levels have decimated Sao Paulo’s reservoir supply.

By the time Brazil’s presidential elections were held in October, the water levels in the Cantareira system had dropped to 11.9%, and shortages quickly became a hot topic during the election. Incumbent Dilma Rousseff didn’t hesitate to attack her opponent Aécio Neves, a member of the party governing the state, for poor management of the region’s water supply.

The months from November to March, summer in Sao Paulo, traditionally bring the strongest rains of the year. Nevertheless, doubts remain as to whether the critical Cantareira system can be replenished. Even after the city was in early November by a rainstorm so severe that it closed freeways and crippled bus service, reservoir levels didn’t rise: quite the opposite. Experts estimate a rainfall of 65 per cent of average levels during the coming months: that promises temporary relief, but threatens an even worse crisis next year.

These drought patterns are part of an increasingly unstable climatic situation affecting Brazil and the rest of South America. According to data released by NOAA, the US weather agency, rainfall is down in Sao Paulo, in some regions only reaching 25% of its average levels. However, in the Brazilian regions of Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso do Sul, as well as in Paraguay, rain levels are much higher than normal. These changes can perhaps be attributed to global climate change, though a recent report in The Guardian suggests that climate shifts may be made particularly acute in South America due to deforestation in the Amazon.

The drought has revealed the difficulty of managing the water supply in a region like Sao Paulo. According to a Vox, climate scientist Marcos Heil Costa has found that, “No city in southeast Brazil seems prepared to handle a drought like this one. It is a mix of a lack of preparation for low levels of rain and a lack of environmental education in the population.” Further complicating the issue is the fact that consumption patterns by users remain the same. According to Costa, “Most people continue to use water as if we were in a normal year.”

At this point, no clear solution is in sight. Proposals have been made to replenish the nearly empty Cantareira system with water from the Paraiba do Sul watershed – but that idea has been opposed by officials in Rio de Janeiro, who rely on it for their own water supply. And systems such as desalination, long used in Israel and being implemented by several coastal cities in drought-stricken California, make less sense in Sao Paulo. Though close to the ocean, it is 2,500 feet (760m) above sea level, meaning that transferring purified ocean water to the city would be energy intensive.

Sabesp has been reluctant to impose rationing, though many fear that might be next. In the meantime, a group of NGOs has formed to find a way out of the region’s shortage. Dubbing themselves the “Alliance for Water”, the group is composed of members from 60 municipalities in the region. So far, they have proposed strategies such as the restructuring of water management agencies, fines for users who exceed set water limits, and the preservation of fresh water springs. The group’s leader, Maruissa Whatley, also hopes to raise water levels in the Cantareira system back to at least 15 per cent by next April.

Nevertheless, the city’s future will depend on the amount of rainfall it receives during the next few months. And at this point, the possibility that the drought will continue into 2015 remains a disturbing possibility.  


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.