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A Historic Drought Grips Brazil's Economic Capital

A demonstrator dressed as a bather protests against the rationing of water, outside the official residence of Sao Paulo's Governor Geraldo Alckmin in Sao Paulo, on Jan. 26. The banner behind him reads, "Planet Water, Dry Lives."

Last Sunday, hundreds of Paulistanos, as the residents of Sao Paulo are known, dressed up and danced on the streets at one of the dozens of block parties that happen in advance of the annual celebration known as Carnival.

Except this year – among the pirates and Viking bumblebees — some costumes had a more serious, if still not entirely sober, theme.

Antonio Passareli was dressed as a water fountain — with the spigot placed strategically on his waist. But it's no laughing matter, he said.

"We have to make some noise about water," Passareli said, adding he was desperately worried about the city's current water shortage.

And he's not alone.

Southern coastal Brazil is suffering its worst drought in 80 years. South America's biggest city – home to more than 20 million people – may soon be under severe rationing.

Water restrictions are pretty arbitrary at the moment, but the state government is considering emergency rationing in the coming weeks: The most draconian plan could see residents without any water for five days a week.

"Sao Paulo was known as the drizzle city, lots of drizzle. Not anymore," says Augusto Jose Pereira Filho, a professor of atmospheric science at Sao Paulo University. "Now it's kind of a desert."

The reason for the drought is complicated: a mix of climate change, Amazonian deforestation, water mismanagement and Pereira's theory that the massive expansion of cities like Sao Paulo with very little green spaces left has created a kind of heat island which sucks up moisture. That, Pereira says, actually diverts water from the surrounding countryside where the reservoirs are. He says he fears a future where there will be riots over water.

"That scenario is really scary," he says. "Water is very important; it's a fundamental resource for us."

The Cantaeira reservoir system provides half Sao Paulo's drinking water. It's now down to only 6 percent of capacity.

But it's not only Sao Paulo that's in crisis. The drought has affected the breadbasket state of Minas Gerais as well as Rio de Janeiro. Food prices are soaring and businesses are struggling to adapt.

Pablo Muniz is the owner of Tigre Cego restaurant, which is using disposable plates and cutlery — as are many restaurants in Sao Paulo.

"I've no water every day from 12 midday to 8 a.m. in the morning the next day," he says.

Muniz and others in the city blame the local government for the problem. The drought has been going on for months, but he says in advance of the World Cup — which Brazil hosted last summer — and the elections that followed, the authorities didn't want to take tough action. And now it's a disaster, he says.

"They were pretending we didn't have a problem, but it was already very clear that we were having a problem," he says.

Many apartment buildings in the city are drilling for wells; others are trucking in water at great cost.

Tania Franco is a freelance journalist. Its 1:50 in the afternoon. The water gets shut off in her building at 2 p.m., and she is rushing around filling up containers.

"(I use this bottle) to flush the toilet," she tells me. "It's the only way. We try to do everything before two p.m. We take showers, we do the laundry, but there are some things we cannot do in advance right?"

She says she hopes this crisis will lead to better conservation policies – some estimates say that 40 percent of water in Brazil is lost to leaky pipes and old infrastructure.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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