Ediane Marquis is in a rush to leave work at an infant school in the east of São Paulo.
It is the afternoon in Brazil’s commercial capital, and she knows her mother-in-law will be without water as the city struggles with its worst drought on record.
“The water goes off at 1pm and comes back on the next day,” said Mrs Marquis, 51. “Her bathroom and utility area are connected to the mains supply so she has to come to my house. It’s changed her life, it’s changed everything.”
With the lowest rainfall since 1930, reservoirs that supply almost half of the 20 million people in the metropolitan area – including the financial district – are close to running dry.
Doctors have reportedly had to cut short dialysis for patients with kidney failure because of the shortage while schools have introduced water-saving measures to avoid suspending lessons.
Staff denied reports that the Cândido Fontoura children’s hospital went without water earlier this month but Analice Dora, biologist at the hospital, said: “Everyone is worried. Hospitals are the one place that can’t lack water. It’s a question of hygiene.”
Families and businesses began reporting reduced pressure and empty taps last year but water restrictions have tightened since the turn of the year failed to bring rain.
“It’s affecting my business a lot,” said Ana Paula Rodrigues de Lima, 34, a hairdresser in the east of São Paulo. “I can’t wash clients’ hair. I had to use a bucket and a cup the other day.
“There are places in São Paulo that have been lacking water since last year.”
Despite Brazil having the largest water supply in the world, one of the main reservoir networks in São Paulo, the Cantareira system, is at just 10 per cent including deep reserves known as the “dead volume”.
An aerial view of the Atibainha dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir, during a drought (Reuters)
And while February’s rainfall has been above average, it hasn’t been enough to replenish reserves.
“People here grew up with a culture of abundance and one of these abundances is water,” said Décio Semensatto, professor of ecology and environmental sciences at the Federal University of São Paulo.
“There’s water but there’s also a lot of people. International standards say water stress is when levels fall below 1,500 cubic metres per person per year. Here, it’s 200 cubic metres. We’re experiencing a water situation like a semi-desert.”
Last month, there were government warnings that the reservoirs could dry up completely in four or five months.
And Professor Semensatto said water stress was likely to continue in São Paulo for four to five years, threatening not only the city’s economy but the rest of the country as well.
“When we start to see businesses based in São Paulo slowing down, then we will see the effect on other cities across Brazil,” he added.
An aerial view of the Jaguari dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir (Reuters)
Although São Paulo’s state water utility Sabesp said it was taking action, including introducing incentives for families using less water, fines for excessive use and installing water savers on taps, it did not rule out water rationing.
“We have not made a decision on rationing nor when rationing will be needed,” said Jerson Kelman, president of Sabesp. “However, we have to be prepared for the worst.
“If we continue without rain and reach the limit, I don’t know when, at which we have to start rationing, we are technically capable of guaranteeing water where it is essential: in hospitals, prisons.”
But Paulistas have accused the government of playing down the scale of the crisis until after October’s election and failing to plan for the drought.
“In 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ana Ferreira, 47, who runs a café in central Sao Paulo.
“It goes off from around 1pm until the early hours. The other day it didn’t come back on until 10am.
“The government didn’t warn people about the problems because of political interests. The population was misled.”
Mrs Ferreira said her business was surviving thanks to a water tank that provided reserves when the mains was turned off but said poorer families on the outskirts of the city had been hit harder.
SABESP michinery, right, work next to pumps from the Jaguari dam station (Reuters)
Despite problems since early last year, Geraldo Alckmin, state governor, only admitted for the first time in January that water rationing was taking place, prompting accusations that the government had missed a chance to stem shortages and prepare the public.
“There were forecasts in 2012, even Sabesp knew that there would be the possibility of facing a great drought,” added Prof Semensatto. “Actions to minimise the effects of the crisis were not taken.
“The public needs to know the situation as it is. It’s extremely critical. The other information not being given is how long this crisis will last. Water stress will last four to five years.
“This year is training for the next few years, which will be worse.”
Originally published by the Telegraph