São Paulo, Brazil. Merely reading that phrase is more than most readers have thought about our hemisphere’s largest city in a long time. Maybe ever. The incorporated city has 11 million residents, which is like adding a couple of Manhattans to New York City, and another 10 million people in surrounding suburbs. Vibrant and cosmopolitan, São Paulo has more people of Italian ethnicity than Rome, and very large Japanese, Arab, Jewish and African communities.
And since 2014, São Paulo has been drying out. Brazil is the world’s most water-rich country, sitting on between 12 percent and 16 percent of our planet’s accessible fresh water, but São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the rest of southeastern Brazil are in serious drought. In São Paulo’s case, the sudden, unexpected change in weather patterns (two record dry seasons back-to-back) was only part of the problem. The water infrastructure, based mainly around underground aquifers, was allowed to fall into disrepair with increasing leakage throughout the system. The cost of a lack of coordinated planning is now clear as low water pressures prevent pumping into hilly areas.
Now São Paulo residents are dealing with severe restrictions, many enduring daily 12-hour water cutoffs. The city is scrambling to create emergency water reserves in the most vulnerable neighborhoods and around hospitals and schools. While the well-off have been able to buy expensive water from private tank trucks, most can’t afford it. Some are leaving as water refugees.
São Paulo is learning in a hard way the cost of not managing its water better, its infrastructure better and its planning better. If there’s one lesson Long Island can learn from Brazil, a country which gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower and which has been called “the Saudi Arabia of water,” it’s that nobody anywhere can take their groundwater supply for granted.
Water situations can change very fast, even here.
Consider Governor Cuomo’s 2014 “initiative to improve water quality and resiliency on Long Island,” which was welcomed by public officials of both parties, and every major water and conservation advocacy organization. A series of public meetings and presentations by experts gave new weight and a sense of urgency to tackling the rising nitrogen that are wreaking havoc with our marine waters and moving downward into our aquifers.
Everyone seemed to agree that nitrogen seepage from 500,000 septic tanks and cesspools, mostly in Suffolk County, is killing off marshes, bays and ponds and new sewer systems should be the top priority. A year later, after a super dry 2015, some in the water community are questioning that.
Nassau County is over 90 percent sewered, and captured water is lost to the aquifer replenishment system. Suffolk County “gains” water each year, and the water moves east to west, slowly and under pressure through the sandy aquifers below us. A delicate balance between pumping and rain replenishment maintains pressure needed to hold back surrounding saltwater and maintain adequate reserves. Some worry that a few dry years in a row and extensive new sewering in Suffolk might affect that balance.
Quantity has made a comeback against longtime frontrunner, Quality.
This will take careful planning, oversight and enforcement, something we never had in Nassau County when the dozens of local water districts were created, mostly prior to the Second World War and in some cases prior to the First World War.
We’re seeing signs of water stress around the world. A 2015 United Nations report issued by 500 leading scientists estimated that at current rates, worldwide demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030.
Long Island’s water supply is its biggest asset heading into the future. We lose the water, we lose Long Island as we know it.
We must bring sane, reasonable coordination and oversight to our aquifers.
Michael Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.