São Paulo, the largest city in South America, faced its greatest water crisis in over 80 years between 2013-2015. The Cantareira reservoirs supplying water to over 9 million residents were operating at 3% of their capacity. As a result, many residents had daily 12-hour water cutoffs. This particularly hit the poor as they could not build water tanks and purchase water from private sources. The megacity was saved by rainfall after the prolonged drought and soon after, a water security strategy was drafted which focused on infrastructure improvement by tapping water sources outside the city.
Given the dire condition of São Paulo during drought and the infrastructural policy following the crisis, a workshop examining issues and strategies around urban water security was held in the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), São Paulo from 21-25 October 2019. Thanti Octavianti, a research fellow at the IWSN, participated in the workshop along with 21 other researchers based in both the UK and São Paulo. The participants discussed the infrastructure that brings water to the city, the institutional landscape of water management and urban residents’ formal and informal access to water and sanitation. The workshop was funded by the British Council and the State of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and organised by Dr. Jessica Budds from the University of the East Anglia and Dr. Vanessa Empinotti from UFABC.
In the first two days, participants presented their work related to the workshop’s theme and topics varied from water policy challenges in São Paulo to other global issues, including urban water supply in Cairo, sanitation in the slums of Dhaka, and flood protection infrastructures in Jakarta. Participants had an opportunity to hear from residents living on the banks of Billings reservoir, which holds 20% more water than the Cantareira system but only supplies a small portion of water to the city due to its poor water quality. This dialogue shed light on the residents’ struggle to get access to the sewerage system in order not to pollute the reservoir, and to reduce their burden of emptying individual septic tanks every three months. In addition to hearing from the people, the debate was also enriched with views from a representative of a water NGO (ONDAS). The last two days were spent discussing the outcomes out of the workshop. Participants are working on several writing projects including a multi-authored paper conceptualising urban water security and using São Paulo as a case study to illustrate the challenges associated with securing water for the people.