Brazilian drought
A puddle is all that is left in one of the reservoirs of the Cantareira System, which normally supplies nearly half of the São Paulo metropolitan region. (Photo Courtesy of Ninja/

Brazil — from the droughts of the Northeast to São Paulo’s thirst

Six million people in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, may at some point find themselves without water. The February rains did not ward off the risk and could even aggravate it by postponing rationing measures which hydrologists have been demanding for the last six months.

The threat is especially frightening for millions of people who have flocked here from Brazil’s poorest region, the semi-arid Northeast, many of whom fled the droughts that are so frequent there.

The Nordestinos did not imagine that they would face a scarcity of water in this land of abundance, where most of them have prospered. The most famous of them, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, became a trade union leader and eventually president of the country from 2003 to 2011.

“Our water tank holds 4,500 litres, which lasts us two days,” Luciano de Almeida, the owner of the restaurant Nación Nordestina, which serves 8,000 customers a month, told Tierramérica. “I’m looking for a place to put another tank so I’ll have 10,000 litres, negotiating with neighbours, since my roof might not support the weight.”

Many people in this city of 22 million people share his concern about storing more water, especially in the Zona Norte or northern zone of Greater São Paulo, which will be the first area affected by rationing if the state government decides to take measures aimed at guaranteeing water supplies year-round.

The Zona Norte is supplied by the Cantareira system of interconnecting reservoirs which, on the verge of collapse, is still providing water for six million people. It supplied nine million people up to mid-2014, when one-third of the demand was transferred to the other eight systems that provide water in the city.

It is precisely the Zona Norte that is home to many of the Nordestino migrants and their descendants, as reflected by the numerous restaurants that offer typical food from the Northeast, such as carne-de-sol (heavily salted beef cured in the sun), cassava flour and different kinds of beans.

Almeida, 40, was born in São Paulo. But his father came from the Northeast, the first of 14 siblings to leave the northeastern state of Pernambuco in search of a better life in the big city. He came in 1960, two years after one of the worst droughts ever to hit the region.

He found a job in a steel mill, where “he earned so much money that a year later he went back home for vacation.” His brothers and sisters started to follow in his footsteps, said Almeida, who discovered his vocation when he spent eight years working in the restaurant of one of his uncles, before opening his own.

“Life in the Northeast has gotten easier. With the government’s social benefits, people aren’t suffering the same deprivations as before, even during the current drought, one of the worst in history,” said Almeida, who frequently visits his father’s homeland, where his wife, with whom he has a seven-year-old daughter, also hails from.

And the rural population, the hardest-hit by drought, has learned to live with the semi-arid climate in the Northeast, collecting rainwater in tanks, for drinking, household use and irrigation of their small-scale crops. This social technology has now been adapted by the Movimento Cisterna Já, a São Paulo organisation, to help people weather the water crisis here.

One of my 20 employees decided to go back to the Northeast; he plans to use his savings to buy a truck and sell water there,” said Almeida. This reverse migration is driven by the improved living conditions in that region, Brazil’s most impoverished and driest area.

Paulo Santos, the 38-year-old manager of the restaurant Feijão de Corda in the Zona Norte, also plans to return to his home city, Vitoria da Conquista in the northeast state of Bahía, which he left 20 years ago “to try my hand at better work than farming.”

“I’m tired, life in São Paulo is too stressful. The drought makes things worse, but there will be a solution to that one way or another. Vitoria da Conquista has grown a lot, now it has everything, and living standards there are better,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Water, a network of 46 social and environmental organisations from the state of São Paulo, is lobbying the state government and mobilising society with the aim of “building water security” in the city.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission