Cantareira: a new word for when politics is put ahead of public interest

Cantareira: a new word for when politics is put ahead of public interest

The reservoir system upon which São Paulo depends is in crisis

Editor’s Note: With the situation ongoing, new information will be added here regularly.

Up to 9m inhabitants of São Paulo, Brasil have their water supply at risk.

Brasil’s richest & most populous state is suffering the worst drought for generations, with the Government of Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB), who have controlled it for 20 years, accused of failure to sufficiently invest or prepare. Water rationing of up to 18 hours per day has already been introduced within the capital and some outlying towns have gone months with no water at all.

Earlier in the year, with elections looming, it is easy to understand why Alckmin didn’t want to concede that there was a problem, nor subject Paulistas to water rationing. This was despite the Cantareira system of reservoirs at that time already operating at “Death Volume” – the remnant at the very bottom, which is considered highly dangerous to consume due to presence of heavy metals and other harmful trace elements. Levels at Alto Tietê reservoir, one of the half dozen or so serving the Greater São Paulo area are also perilously low.

Governor Alckmin was re-elected easily in October with 60% of the vote, despite concerns about water supply, and 3 days after the election, SabeSP the state water company, finally admitted there was a water crisis, with the Governor only having denied it on television a week previously. SabeSP have said that a refusal to introduce rationing or restrictions back in July came from “a higher authority”.

Since being floated by Sao Paulo Government in 1996, SabeSP is 49.8% privately owned, including a listing on the New York Stock exchange, and approximately 25% is foreign held, and it paid out a reported R$4bn in dividends during 2013.

An attempt during election by Aecio Neves to blame the Federal Government of his opponent was rebutted with a reminder of the R$1bn offer by Dilma Rousseff in January 2014 to assist in dealing with the coming crisis, an offer which Alckmin refused. Only following PSDB’s loss in the 2nd round Presidential vote, did Governor Alckmin finally approach Federal Government for help, eventually asking for R$3.5bn, for various projects, some of which remain undefined.

Claims that the water shortage is purely result of this year’s freak drought are also doubtful, because as the figures below demonstrate, the decline in reservoir volume has been steady and continuous for almost 5 years, roughly 20% a year.

São Paulo Cantareira System Volume (1st January)

2010: 96.2%
2011: 74.9%
2012: 67.3%
2013: 48.8%
2014: 27.2%

January 2015: 5-6%

Source: GGN

A United Nations report placed the responsibility for the crisis squarely on Sao Paulo state government & SabeSP’s shoulders, a report which Geraldo Alckmin attempted to make them alter, exonerating his administration, a request they refused.

Alckmin’s power base is in the countryside and in agriculture, not the city itself, and 45% of all water is allotted to the irrigation needs of the industry, including that of Sugar Cane growing for Ethanol Production – a principal donor to the Neves presidential campaign.36% of total volume is lost in wastage between storage and user.

In contrast only 5% is used by urban consumers.

Another startling figure is the 122 trillion litres of fresh water exported from Brasil each year.


São Paulo produces 60% of Brasil’s Ethanol, and Agencia Publica attempted to use a freedom of information request to force SabeSP to reveal details of their contracts of supply with the biggest industrial & agricultural companies in the state. SabeSP have so far refused.



A theory that Amazon deforestation is responsible for the drop in rainfall across southeastern Brasil while credible, does not itself alone explain the shortages which are widely accepted to be primarily due to bad management of resources and lack of diversity in sources of water, such as treatment of river water & sewage, increased local collection of rainwater and so on.

Most significant of all, Geologists have also been studying plans to open up the enormous Guarani Aquifer to exploitation in order to alleviate the crisis. The World Bank already funded research in the late 1990s on the underground system, during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Their contract with Brazil to support this research stipulated that any future use as a water resource had to be privatised, but once that contract expired a decade later, Brazil refused to renew on the same terms. It is still unclear as to what Sao Paulo State Government / SabeSP’s intentions are in this regard to this resource, but some towns already use water from the Bauru Aquifer, which is closer to the surface & easier to tap.

United Nations estimates that the Guarani Aquifer, 60% of which is on Brazilian territory, holds enough water to supply 5.5bn people 100l per day for 200 years.

The Cantareira system is at its heart a remarkable feat of engineering, originally envisaged in 1875 by British engineer James Brunless. It had its first stage opened on December 30, 1973, with operation beginning in 1974. São Paulo State Government, through the Basic Sanitation Company of the State of São Paulo (SABESP), was awarded the contract, initially for 30 years, to operate the Cantareira System. The second stage, a massive engineering project, was initiated in 1976 and inaugurated in 1981.

Since then, the Cantareira has had the ability to serve up to 33,000 litres per second, enough to supply half of Greater São Paulo, a total area of ​​227950 hectares. It consists of five reservoirs: Jaguari and Jacarei, which are interlinked, Cachoeira, Atibainha & Juqueri. Interconnecting tunnels & channels transfer water from a dam downstream, while a pumping station at Santa Ines and the the Águas Claras reservoir help maintain uneven levels, allowing the system to breathe.

Without this system, Greater São Paulo simply would not be what it is today, a huge urban area with more than 20 million people which accounts for 19% of Brasil’s GDP, containing more than 10% of its population. One of the largest megacities in the world, an industrial complex, providing scientific, technological and cultural excellence.

Serious problems have been detected since 2003, with shortages predicted by 2010, and after a 5 year decline, the Cantareira system finally collapsed during record drought, and fingers are pointing at mismanagement – in particular since the decision of Geraldo Alckmin to hand over the management of the Department of Water Resources to the Green Party (PV).

With no campaign to limit water consumption nor any new works or studies into alternatives or improvements to the system already in place, unresolved technical problems and illegal connections have caused massive water loss. SABESP stand accused of destroying the focus of the engineering system which should guarantee supply to the region.

The cost to the people of São Paulo for this institutional failure to prepare could be heavy, and the ensuing crisis can serve as a great lesson to those who put party ahead of the public interest.