Talking Point: The Brazilian water crisis – it’s time to act

Brazil needs an urgent programme of good water management.

Brazil needs an urgent programme of good water management.

ITP Regional Co-ordinator for the Youth Career Initiative in Latin America Priscila Costa highlights the ongoing water issues in Brazil and says; ‘the time for awareness has passed, it’s time to act.’

In my role as YCI Regional Co-ordinator for Latin America, I spend a lot of time working both with hotels and with some of Brazil’s most disadvantaged young people. I see the issues that affect both the industry and the local people it seeks to employ, and perhaps the most pressing issue for both sides is water.

In 2013 ITP in collaboration with SIWI published its Global Water Risk Assessment Report, which identified Brazil alongside China, India and Dubai as the top four at risk areas for severe water shortages. Here is the issue as I see it on the ground.

Access to one of the most important resources for health and long life should be one of the priority issues in any public debate. Regardless of the differences that surround the issue of water, one statement is indisputable: it is a vital, irreplaceable and common good. The lack of water affects human dignity, has public health implications, paralyses economic activity and can lead to chaos.

Did you know that about 12% of the world's fresh water travels over Brazil, home to less than 3% of the global population? Brazil is the fourth largest in world water consumption, losing only to China, India and the United States. Among the members of the G20, the country is second only to Canada in per capita availability of water.

But, despite the abundance, it is clear we do not know how to use water responsibly. Incredibly 37% of treated water is wasted; a volume which would be enough to supply France, Belgium, Switzerland and northern Italy. The problem is unequal distribution, an issue which increases in large cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

In October 2014, 60% of residents of the largest city in South America - Sao Paulo – recorded a lack of water in their homes. Hospitals and schools closed their doors and the more vulnerable communities were the most affected. The supply channel for more than 20 million people is on the verge of complete collapse, exacerbated by the worst drought in 84 years.

But the water crisis had been foreseen. The impending collapse in supply was warned of in public reports since 2004, and that was even at normal rainfall levels. The report aimed to kick-start action plans to prevent the worst case scenarios that we face today. If action had been taken a decade ago, maybe it would have helped, but now it’s too late.

Priscila Costa, YCI co-ordinator for Latin America blogs from Brazil

Priscila Costa, YCI co-ordinator for Latin America blogs from Brazil


The people I work with in the most disadvantaged communities are the ones most affected. Many have access to water just a few hours a day and they feel that political mis-management has made the situation worse. People are angry that the government has poured resources into events like the World Cup and Rio 2016, rather than tackling this critical issue. There are no campaigns to limit water consumption, nor any new programmes to improve the current system that has caused massive water loss. This was recognised in a report by the UN which said state officials had failed to address the crisis. Meanwhile the privatised water supply company is reporting record dividends.

In Sao Paulo the people’s water supply is now the 'dead volume' from Cantareira reservoir, which is the remnant at the very bottom considered highly dangerous to consume due to the presence of heavy metals and other harmful trace elements. This reservoir reached 5% of its capacity in January this year, and in February the state faced a hyperepidemic of diarrhoea. The most vulnerable communities including children and old people are the most affected. Many feel it is a crime against human rights.

Experts on water resources and climate change point to four main factors that led to the crisis: the preference of governments to use even more water from reservoirs, rather than more responsible use of this essential resource; deforestation in watershed areas and pollution of water sources in almost every state; extreme drought and a rainfall deficit, particularly in the Cantareira System reservoir; little room for social participation or transparency in water management.

However, although the scenario is catastrophic and uncertain, crises bring new opportunities. It is essential that we rethink our relationship with this vital resource, understand that we cannot consume water carelessly. We never should have begun to use potable water to flush the toilet or use water without creating re-use systems. Probably actions to address the collapse should be collective and will require a long period of sacrifice by the population. From now on, the mitigation of the crisis must involve a wide network of governmental and non-governmental actors to ensure the public safety of the population, including the right to water for consumption, health and employment.

Everywhere now people are getting together to think what to do and how to live from now on. One example is the Alliance for Water, a network of over 40 civil society organisations gathered since October 2014 to raise awareness and submit proposals to help the state of São Paulo deal with the current crisis and build a new culture of use, saving and water conservation. Its members argue that any public investment in new infrastructure and large projects should include a sustainability plan to ensure water security, and to consider social and climatic variables before implementation. It is necessary to implement actions going forward to reduce consumption including saving programmes, reuse, rainwater harvesting and reduction in system losses.

To mark World Water Day 2015, Alliance for Water published the "Water: Survival Guide for the crisis." The illustrated booklet was produced collaboratively by various groups and experts to answer questions on water scarcity and how to prepare for emergencies, in addition to detailing the best water-savings practices, strategies in the event of collapse, health guidelines and information on alternative water sources. The target audience is the most disadvantaged populations, who generally do not have water reservoirs and have been the most affected by cuts in supply.

But, what are businesses doing? About 95% of hospitals, companies, industries and hotels in Sao Paulo do not have a contingency plan to face possible shortages, according to a survey conducted by Center, Development and Continuing Education (CPDEC) between October and November 2014. The artesian wells and water trucks are considered emergency measures, but there is little contingency if these resources fail.

Research shows that 78% of the volume of water consumed by hotels comes from regional supply companies; 17% from wells and 5% water trucks. When interviewed, 16 representatives of small, medium and large hotels (13-340 rooms) revealed that although 56% said they had a contingency plan, that mostly meant resorting to the water truck supply. Frustratingly, 81.25% of properties do not have a reuse system. Among the ones that do re-use water (18.75%), only 6.25% could confirm the reused volume. It all begs the question: Are hotels properly prepared for water scarcity?

Undoubtedly hotels must take action to secure the preservation of this common and finite good, not least for the survival of their businesses. Simple actions like reducing water flush volume in toilets, low-flow reducers in showers and taps, linen change programmes for guests and rain collection and treatment, alongside more complex actions like sewage treatment before sending to the public sewer, use of new cleaning technology, as well as fixing leaks and ongoing preventive maintenance all have a massive impact both on the reduction of water use and reduced overheads. Publicly, concern is growing over water management in properties and a perceived increasing demand.

BHG - Brazil Hospitality Group invested approximately BRL 500,000 in solutions to reduce water waste and use including retrofit of showers and taps with flow reducers and awareness campaigns. One of their hotels, the full-service Marina Palace in Rio de Janeiro, with low-flow showers and taps has helped the chain achieve a reduction of 5% to 10%. They are now studying the possibilities for adaptation of effluents and rainwater reuse for the largest hotels in the chain.

Another good example is the chain Hotels Privé, with three properties in Midwest Brazil, which invested about BRL 1.5 million in a new water treatment plant. The chain’s environmental engineer says that following the construction of this station, the group recorded a savings of BRL 2.27 million. Incredibly, the project avoids the disposal of water in the municipal sewage system or any water body, minimising waste and adapting the concepts of sustainability.

The Grand Hyatt Sao Paulo told us, "Our employees realised that at the end of an event or conference, many bottles of mineral water - open but not completely consumed - were left over. The same was true in guest rooms after a stay. This water, previously discarded, is now used to clean indoors and water gardens. This saves about 240 litres of water.”

The hotel also worked to capture rainwater and use it for cleaning public areas; held "design thinking" sessions with heads of departments to improve awareness, encouraged staff to change their habits and decrease uniform cleaning, the hotel's laundry reduced its opening hours, and flow regulators were added to taps.

Water scarcity is a global issue and the hotel industry increasingly recognises its responsibility to tackle this. Doing so positively impacts everyone and especially the lives of the disadvantaged young people we seek to help. Through the International Tourism Partnership, leading hotel companies are working collaboratively to standardise the way the industry measures and reports on water consumption with the production of the Hotel Water Measurement Initiative, which will allow hotels to benchmark against similar properties in their region and seek ways to exercise good water stewardship and reduce their footprint. Hotels seeking to improve their own water sustainability programmes can find examples of best practice in Green Hotelier, as well as downloading our Know How Guide to Water Responsibility and Management in Hotels and our chapter on Water in the Environmental Management for Hotels manual.

In Brazil water is the most pressing issue that requires everyone’s participation in the decisions of city, state and country - in the world. We should be acting even before Rio 2016 makes this an issue in a global spotlight. For us water scarcity and use has become a major social and environmental issue which relies on us to build – collectively - a response that is not based on individualism. What is at stake is not simply the ongoing development of the country, but more fundamentally our disastrous relationship with the environment and our disassociation from nature. We need to change, not just to handle the current emergency, we need to change forever.

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