National Sections of the L5I:

The water crisis in São Paulo

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For years we have been reading that water is becoming so scarce on a worldwide scale that in the course of the 21st-century wars could be fought over it. Perhaps it is an irony of history that it is precisely in the country with the greatest reserves of freshwater, Brazil, that the major city of São Paulo began 2015 facing a complete collapse of its water supply. This is not just a crisis of water management, it is part of the crisis of capitalism.

Although it is true that Brazil has huge water resources, that is only part of the picture. The greater part of the water, 70 percent, is to be found in the huge Amazon region in the north, thousands of kilometres from São Paulo in the south-east of the country. By contrast, the north-east of Brazil is a semi arid region but, with a population of 40 million, one of the most densely populated parts of the world. There, water scarcity and rationing and all the problems that go with this, are regular features of life. Statistics show that, by 2008, 23 percent of Brazil's communities, including cities, had regular water rationing.

For many Brazilians, therefore, this is not a new problem. It is only now, however, that the "water problem" has become a national issue. The majority of the population of Brazil live in the South East and East, which is also where industry and industrialised agriculture is concentrated. It is indeed the centre of Brazilian capitalism. That is why the possibility that São Paulo could run out of water is unthinkable.

Some 20 million people live in the greater São Paulo region and 10 percent of the population live on less than 0.1 percent of the land. In the federal state of São Paulo, the population is 42 million and the area produces one third of Brazil's GDP. The current water crisis is not limited to São Paulo. In October 2014, 70 towns in the state were affected by water shortages. In the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais, people spoke of an even worse crisis. Even in Rio de Janeiro, the second biggest city in Brazil after São Paulo with 11 million, the situation is becoming increasingly critical.

The crisis

São Paulo and the South-East, in contrast to the North East, are not arid regions. It is a combination of three decisive factors that accounts for the current misery. First, there is an extreme concentration of population. Second, there is a periodic drought, 2014 was one of the driest years on record since 1961. Third, and this is the decisive one, there has been a complete failure of politics.

The conurbation of São Paulo uses water at the rate of 65,000 L per second. That is extremely high. The water company, SABESP, was partly privatised in 1994. Since then its shares have been on sale in São Paulo and New York. The government of the federal state of São Paulo holds 50.3% of the shares.

The governor, Alckmin, from the right opposition party, PSDB, blames all the problems on the drought. But this is a periodic phenomenon in the south-east that is well known. By 2004, water supply was already critical in São Paulo. Since then, there have been many experts and reports that have made it clear there is an urgent necessity for investment and expansion of water treatment and conservation and a reduction in losses from the distribution network. Nonetheless, even 10 years later, nothing has been done. At the same time, between 2003 and 2013, the water company has distributed 1.3 billion to its shareholders. In 2014, as the latest drought began, water loss was still between 30 and 40 percent. That corresponds to some 20 - 28 m³per second. By way of comparison, the whole of Berlin in 2013 required 6.2 m³ per second. A further problem is the treatment of wastewater. In total there is, in fact, enough water, but wastewater is so polluted that it could only be used for drinking water after very expensive treatment. The giant reservoir in the south of the city cannot be used because for decades poisonous industrial waste has been allowed to flow into it. Other watercourses are sewers. In the whole conurbation, only about one third of wastewater is treated.

The problem, however, also reveals other factors. The clearing of vegetation from around rivers and in particular around springs, hinders the natural supply of clean water and increases the pollution of the rivers. The big reservoir in the north of São Paulo, responsible for supplies to 6.2 million people, is the worst affected. Deforestation of the surrounding region, which has removed 80 percent of vegetation, has worsened the crisis.

The extreme housing shortage and high rents have also played a role. The banks of the second most important reservoir in the south of the city, Guaraparanga, are ringed with favelas. Formally, nobody should live there because it is a water protection area. However, the displacement of the poorer population first from the countryside by commercial agriculture and then from the city centre because of housing speculation, has left many poor people with no choice. On top of that, these people face widespread hostility, as if they were to blame for the problem.

During the election year of 2014, there was no official talk of water rationing. After the governor, Alckmin, was re-elected in October, despite various scandals, he announced at the beginning of the year it might be necessary to ration water for five days per week. What would then happen in São Paulo, nobody knew.

Are "the people" using too much?

The water crisis clearly shows that there has been a complete collapse of the capitalist administration of the water supply, even from a capitalist point of view. Of course, individual capitalists profit from being able to discharge industrial wastewater cost free and from not having to pay any tax for the development of the water supply and wastewater treatment.

However, as a class, it is not at all in the interests of the bourgeoisie to see the water supplies and resources destroyed. The water crisis in São Paulo is such a big problem precisely because it is the centre of industrial production in Brazil. If the water supply fails here, it will not only leave millions of people with no water, but industrial and agricultural production, and therefore profits, will also suffer.

Precisely because of this, the crisis is seen as an opportunity by the supporters of further privatisation. They say that the problem is that water is too cheap and, therefore, people use too much of it.

Per capita consumption of water in the city of São Paulo is some 220 litres per day. That is more than, for example, in Germany, where the average is 128 litres. However, first of all the climate in São Paulo is significantly warmer and secondly these are average figures from a metropolis of 21 million. That means there are innumerable businesses, restaurants, small factories etc that also have to be taken into account.

Certainly there are people who use too much water: the rich who have swimming pools and irrigate their estates. However, a significant section of the population certainly uses too little water and, from the point of view of public health and hygiene, needs to use more. In any event, they have a right to it. The argument that "the people" generally use too much water, leaves out of account the social question.

What is true, is that the major water users in industry and agriculture should be forcefully obliged to pay up. While the upper class and sections of the middle class in São Paulo want to raise water prices for the poor, these sectors have always had privileged access to water resources and pay practically nothing for them. The price of water is thus a social question. The privatisation of water leads, above all, to excluding the poor from accessing water resources and turns water itself into a source of profits.


Since February, there has been rain and the situation is no longer as tense. However, the crisis is still far from over! The wet season only lasts until the middle of the year and nobody knows whether there will be enough water for the rest of the year. In order to resolve the water crisis, and other environmental problems, all those affected, and the workers in both agriculture and industry, need to organise themselves into a movement against any attempt to solve the water crisis at the cost of the workers and the poor! On this, there is a broad consensus on the left.

The "movement of homeless workers" MTST, organised a demonstration of some 15,000 on February 27 in protest at the water issue and gained some important concessions from the state government. Their demands included a rejection of a general increase in the price of water, the ending of privileged contracts for major users and of the selective rationalisation which affects the poorer districts of São Paulo. We must build on this movement! Important organisations, including the MTST, should form an alliance in order to organise further protests to bring pressure to bear on the government. In building the basis for such protests, the big mass organisations such as the CUT trade union confederation must be called on to participate.

The movement should fight for an emergency plan controlled by delegates of all those affected and the workers in the water industry itself, in order at last to have a clear assessment of the situation. Major industrial consumers must reduce their usage without any job losses. The second central demand should be the complete re-nationalisation, with no compensation, of the water company, but this time under the control of the employees and consumers. On this basis, it will be possible to develop an investment plan which can in time improve the situation.

That, of course, cannot be undertaken in conjunction with government, either of the federal state of São Paulo, under the right wing PSDB or with the national government under the bourgeois workers' party, PT, but only against them. The water crisis in São Paulo shows, above all, that the Brazilian development model, which has been so highly praised in recent decades, has reached its limits and can offer no further perspectives. Finally, the struggle for environmental justice must be combined with a socialist perspective which shows the way to a social order which can improve the living conditions of the workers without plundering natural resources.

The fundamental problem is not this or that bad administration, even if in particular cases these exacerbate the situation, but the capitalist system.