Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil holds some of the largest stocks of fresh water in the world, but regional water scarcity in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have marked bone-dry reservoir levels not seen in over sixty years. Not a good sign considering last week was the 2015 World Water Day.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.
Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

The majority of Rio de Janeiro’s tap water comes from the springs born in the Serra da Bocaina National Park, in the state of São Paulo, and are carried faithfully north by the Paraiba do Sul river, eventually reaching the Guandu Water Treatment Station in Rio, the largest plant of its kind according to the Guinness books of ridiculous records.

The Paraiba do Sul River, one of the most important but also one of the most polluted in Brazil, carries within its flow a respectable amount of human feces with the added bonus of agriculture and industrial heavily-laced sewer water, making it the Perrier of contaminated water in the country. Garçom, bottled water, please!

Soon after the Guandu station filters and heavy bombards this inflow with expensive chemical inputs, like fluoride and other bubbly agents, the water becomes more of a commodity than an universal right to the millions of water drinking souls in Rio’s metropolitan area.

Rio de Janeiro’s per capita water consumption is the highest in the country at the mark of 250 liters per day, and people smell good on the public buses packed like canned sardines. But don’t blame the abusive water use just on the showers or the doorman cleaning the sidewalk with garden hose fed water. Rio’s public/private water network loses more than half of the distributed water to illegal connections, water leaks and faulty pipes.

Some of the most important distribution water mains, like the one located in Jardim Botânico that provides most of the water to the Zona Sul (South Zone) of the city, date back to the imperial reign of Dom Pedro II built in the 1800s. The kinky ancient leather straps that still hold the iron cast pipes together, or bare back it if you will, do sort of leak a bit, and no one seems to be wrapping in these areas.

Unfortunately, city apartment dwellers have a very limited understanding of how much water they consume on a daily basis as the vast majority of buildings in Rio split the water bill equally among its units.

Sharing water evenly among city peers in Rio is ethically flagrant everywhere you look, like the lousy, noisy penthouse neighbor that never invites you to his parties but constantly fills his pool to the rim, while the poor federal university student sharing the building’s garage room with the oversized tropical cockroaches is obligated to split the bill with ‘that guy’.

Neighborly water sharing politics go beyond the city dwellings, as the issuance of water is constantly disputed by São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro alike. Both states share equal rights to the national park water system, feeding both globally-known metropolises and the third-wheel state of Minas Gerais. While everyone seems to be fighting for water from one particular source, the governmental troglodytes still don’t seem to notice the amount of rainwater falling on their brawny foreheads.

Now that the muck is slam-dunking the bedrock and political rain-dance discourse of governors and mayors ask people to literally pray for more rain, coming to a metaphysical religious zenith halt, people are starting to question why the grand majority of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo states look more like soccer fields from aerial views than the lush forest they should really be nesting?

Healthy riparian margins could serve as water retention buffers and could potentially ease the current water deficit seen in the reservoirs that feed millions in Rio and São Paulo states.

It’s a joke that the only governmental figure who implemented a significant reforestation project in Rio de Janeiro was Dom Pedro II back in the 1800s, when he kicked out the coffee-growing barons from the hills of Jardim Botânico to create a Tijuca Forest watershed to provide fresh water for Rio’s metropolitan area.

This 19th century monarch was on the right track. Modern day politicians should follow his steps not only reforesting degraded areas, but also investing in rainwater catching systems in the metropolitan areas. Such systems would help ease the flooding problems seen in many Brazilian cities while providing an alternative source of fresh water to the people, solving two major issues simultaneously.

Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, an MBE from COPPE-UFRJ in Rio de Janeiro and a BA from Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Alfonso lives in Rio, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.


  1. Brazil’s a funny place. Everybody, from politicians to porteiros, understands the problems very clearly. And everybody understands the solutions, which are usually ludicrously obvious and simple. And these problems are all anyone talks about, in daily conversations, in newspaper articles, in television reports and university conferences.
    And after all the talk, talk, talk, nobody does anything. EVER.
    That’s the great paradox of Brazil–everyone understands the problems and the solutions, and then every conceivable pretext is used to do nothing and to change nothing.
    Brazil has beautiful beaches and great music and warm friendly people. Take it or leave it.

  2. My apologies to the readers. I made a slight historical mistake. It should be Dom Pedro II not Dom João VI.

  3. The water problem is also persistent in Pakistan, where the rivers have been bone of contention not only between Pakistan and India but the internal provinces of Pakistan. This is a good write-up

  4. So you say Brazil has some of the highest reserves of fresh water in the world, why can’t they import water domestically? Not exactly the solution long-term, as renewing water supplies should be the goal but what is the deal there, is that water already commercially owned?


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