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Field Notes

Letter from Brazil: Sao Paulo's Long Dry Spell

4 MINS READJun 12, 2014 | 14:32 GMT
A few weeks ago the doorman had a letter for every resident in my Sao Paulo apartment building detailing new government directives on saving water. The letter asked that everyone cooperate in order to avoid a fine. The next morning, informational posters appeared in the elevators with water saving tips. Waste management company Sabesp, which is owned by the state of Sao Paulo, produced the posters, even though a water shortage has not been officially declared. But the problem is real. Low rainfall began in October 2013 and continued as we entered Brazil's summer months, from December to April. Each February we are usually inundated with a tropical downpour every afternoon. This year, however, we went over two weeks without rain. For Brazil, little rain means low reservoirs and low reservoirs mean not enough hydroelectricity. In March an energy analyst suggested coal as a supplement to electricity generation, and the next month the government decided to increase natural gas imports from Bolivia. Since then they have also imported liquefied natural gas. But the attempts to promote water conservation have been ad hoc. My building wasn't given any definition of average consumption or how the fine would be applied; although later the Sabesp decided that consumption would be pegged to last year's monthly consumption and that discounts would be given for using less. Because the building has a collective water meter, however, there is no way to tell who is taking their regulation five-minute shower and who is doing their best Gene Kelly impersonation of "Singing in the Rain." The suggested water saving measures are also quite strange from my American perspective. Some were intuitive to me: Turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, take shorter showers, fully load the washing machine and prevent leaks. But other measures were conspicuously absent. No mention was made of ending the constant hosing down of private walkways and public sidewalks — something most Sao Paulo residents seem to do on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. The measures also included tips for more efficient car washing but didn't suggest less frequent washing in general. Instead the poster issued a stern warning that toilet paper should not be put in the toilet but rather in the wastebasket. In the United States, such a suggestion would be seen as unhygienic and totally absurd — no one would be willing to empty that trashcan. But the quixotic measures were in keeping with the Brazilian national character. Brazilians are obsessed with cleanliness; it's part of a broader cultural fixation on maintaining appearances. The class system that undergirded colonial Brazil is still very much alive, though less explicit. Keeping a spotless sidewalk helps to signal respectability. What goes on behind closed doors is less important. Latin America as a whole is preoccupied with status symbols, but Brazil takes this to a different level: I've seen wedding invitations bigger than my university diploma, people take as many as four showers a day to avoid body odor and every car I've seen has been immaculately scrubbed. I see examples of this all the time. Saturday mornings I exercise at the university campus, which is open to cyclists and runners. Every week I see the head of a tri-athlete training group sweeping up the dust and small leaves around the bike tie-up and under the stool that holds water and sports drinks. The sweeping is confined to a few meters of sidewalk and it totally confounds me. The people who go there want to be outside and are prepared to sweat, yet it is still important to have a few meters of clean walkway before stepping onto the track to run for two hours. But the reasoning is as Brazilian as the logic behind hosing down the sidewalks; as a foreigner, it just doesn't make sense to me. Limited enforcement from the government coupled with Brazilians' own idiosyncratic water practices leave me skeptical of whether water rationing will be effective. Let's just hope for rain.

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