Eyeing elections, drought-hit Sao Paulo resists water rationing

jueves 22 de mayo de 2014 11:10 GYT

By Esteban Israel

SAO PAULO May 22 (Reuters) - Afranio Sobrinho has one of the most unpopular jobs in Brazil.

As the head of the Guarulhos water utility SAAE, Sobrinho turns off the taps every other day in this industrial suburb of 1.3 million people just outside Sao Paulo to cope with a dwindling water supply caused by the worst drought in 80 years.

"Rationing is unpopular," says the soft-spoken, affable 53-year-old engineer, adding that residents are understandably resentful of the measure. "But you have to think of this as managing your money - you can't live off your savings forever. And our savings are almost gone."

Officials elsewhere in South America's largest metropolitan area, however, are not being so cautious. Sao Paulo's main reservoir fell last week to an all-time low of 7.8 percent of capacity, raising the specter of a water shortage in a country with the world's largest fresh-water reserves.

Yet state authorities have resisted calls to extend rationing to the rest of this sprawling metropolis of 20 million, fearing a political backlash as Brazil gears up for the soccer World Cup next month and elections in October.

Instead, state water utility Sabesp is spending lavishly on a TV and radio campaign urging people to take shorter showers and to turn off the taps when washing dishes. It is also pumping muddy reserves from the bottom of the reservoir, hoping that will keep water flowing until the election, which is when the rainy season starts.

State officials insist that city-wide rationing won't be needed, and that even without significant rainfall, there is enough leftover water in the reservoir to get through the year.

"We will get through the dry season," Governor Geraldo Alckmin said last week at a ceremony to start pumping the reservoir's emergency reserves. "We are working 24 hours a day to guarantee supply."   Continuación...