With El Nino settling into a strong-to-monstrous mode and with the world now baking under 1 C of global temperature increases since the 1880s, a large swath from South American through to the Caribbean is suffering from extreme drought.
As we can see in the above map (provided by NOAA) most of South America is experiencing the impact of significant to severe rainfall deficits. Northern Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest are at the epicenter of water losses. But Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and Peru all show substantial drying. It’s a drought that stretches all the way up into the Caribbean. One that has set off water rationing over broad regions. Even the US territory of Puerto Rico hasn’t been left unscathed by this wide-ranging drying. There, 160,000 residents and businesses have seen water turned off for 48 hours and then back on for 24 hours. Another 185,000 are losing water services in 24-hour cycles, a further 10,000 are on a 12-hour rationing plan. A hand of drought that had, as of last week, stretched its desiccating fingers all the way to South Florida — setting off wildfires and sending billowing plumes of smoke into Palm Beach skies.
Water From Sludge
But, in all this wide-ranging drought, there are few places where the situation is so acute as it is in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There, the drought is so severe that it has inflicted water rationing on the populace ever since early 2014. A situation that has gone from bad to steadily worse. At the epicenter of these losses is a massive reservoir called the Cantareira. A great lake once filled with enough reserves to supply over 6 million people that has been reduced to what amounts to a giant, drying puddle of mud. A situation that has forced water managers to pump sludge from the Cantareira’s previous dead pool zone and into treatment facilities in order to provide water to Sao Paulo citizens:
(“Water like what comes out of the back end of a cow” [hat tip to Andy] being fed from the Cantareira reservoir and into Sao Paulo’s water supplies during February of 2015. Image source: The Telegraph.)
Essentially, in order to provide water, Brazil’s utility managers have been forced to put pump lines in the bottom of the muddy Cantareira reservoir. You can see the heads of these pumps as blue boxes in the above image. The pumps then feed the dead pool water into a spill-way that contacts the old water pump which is now too high in elevation to draw water from the drastically diminished pool.
The Cantareira reservoir is Sao Paulo’s largest, its most essential. At most, it contains about 40 million cubic meters of water remaining before it is bone dry. And it’s losing this water at a rate of 200,000 cubic meters each day. Even worse, it’s uncertain if all the remaining water can be accessed. But if it could, it would take just 200 days to completely bottom out the Cantareira at the current rate of losses. For reference, there are about 100 days left until the rainy season starts in Sao Paulo. But with El Nino strengthening and with the Amazon Rain Forest suffering severe water losses, it is uncertain whether this year’s rainy season will arrive on time.
Looking at the larger water system, the situation is equally stark. Alto Tiete, another Sao Paulo reservoir will reach a dead pool situation similar to the Cantareira in just 90 days at current rates of loss. And the entire water system of Sao Paulo will hit its maximum recoverable water in less than a year if losses are not somehow abated.
With the situation so stark, Sao Paulo water managers have drastically cut back on water outlays to the population. In total only about 54 percent of the typical outlay is reaching the public. The result is a very severe and ongoing situation of water rationing for the metropolis. But even worse would be the near complete loss of Sao Paulo’s water supply. A situation the city and region faces if the rains don’t arrive soon.
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Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego (Note: Andy provided much of the research for the section on Sao Paulo reservoirs. To this point, Sabesp has become increasingly less transparent as the water situation there has grown more dire and Andy’s dynamite research was necessary to clear up a few of the more murky bits.)
(Please support public, non-special interest based science, like the critical information that was provided for this article by NOAA.)
(Please also support broad-based climate change policy solutions to reduce fossil fuel emissions, increase public access to renewable energy, and to reduce the climate change caused damage that is already locked in.)