Voices of a Water Crisis: the case of São Paulo

Oftentimes the unjust distribution of water and water risks exists in a city without apparently sparking much contestation on everyday life. These asymmetric distributions persist just below the surface in the hasty routines of the city, until a moment of crisis brings them to light and makes injustices evident. This happened in São Paulo between 2014 and 2015 where the biggest water reservoir of the region hit record low levels; and where the taps of tens of thousands of urban dwellers ran dry, while the commercial and industrial sectors continued to access water as usual. Meanwhile, and despite protests, demonstrations, and complaints suggesting otherwise, the Governor of São Paulo continued to insist that there was no imminent water crisis hitting the low income neighborhoods of the metropolitan area with full force.

When tasked with producing a short documentary for the 2018 Water Governance Documentary Festival earlier this year, a group of first-year graduate students of IHE Delft took the opportunity to narrate the multiple stories that converged in this drought. For their documentary, named “Voices of a Water Crisis: the case of São Paulo”, the group focused on the history of this city, one of the biggest in Latin America, to describe the ways in which water access inequalities came into existence and are reproduced. Their research sheds light on years of uneven urban water distribution that led to the depletion of the reservoir, privileging some sectors of the city while neglecting others. It also documents the different political decisions that contributed to the crisis and the broader context in which the Governor attempted to cover up the frequent and unadvertised water cuts affecting the city’s low income areas. Finally, the documentary also portrays the broad-based civil resistance movements that emerged in response to shortages and the poor management of information. These movements pushed the government officials to recognize the imminent crisis and admit that water rationing had been in place in some neighborhoods.

The team: (from left to right) Simon Ryfisch, Rosemary Nyingi, Adham Badawy, Cristiano Von Steinkirch de Oliveira, and Elham Bakhshian

The documentary features original interviews with academics, artists, leaders of civil society groups, and others to piece together the puzzle of urban water governance. A puzzle that reveals how different actors can (or cannot) make their voices heard when it comes to decision-making. In sum, the documentary shows how droughts reveal the asymmetric distribution of authority and water in the Latin American city.

 


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