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29 September 2014
The southeastern region of Brazil is facing a major water crisis due to one of the worst droughts in decades. As a result of scarce rainfall during Summer 2014 and a lack of planning by authorities, the reservoirs of the Cantareira system – which supplies water to 45% of Sao Paulo's metropolitan population (around 8.8 million people) – are running dry, leading to possible water rationing. In 2014 the Cantareira system reached 9.7% of its capacity, the lowest water level ever recorded. In addition, this alarming scenario triggered an unprecedented environmental conflict between Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais – the three most prosperous Brazilian states, and ironically the worst affected by the water shortage.
The conflict began when the Sao Paulo government decided to transfer water from the Paraiba do Sul river to the Cantareira system in an attempt to increase the water levels in the reservoirs. The plan was to reduce the water flow rate to the Jaguari river (a tributary of the Paraiba do Sul) in order to supply the Cantareira system; however, the other states affected by the problem were not consulted. The Paraiba do Sul is an interstate river that crosses Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, covering more than 184 cities. It is one of the main sources of water and energy for Rio de Janeiro, where 12.3 million people directly and indirectly benefited from hydro-exploitation of the river.
The conflict arose because Sao Paulo's unilateral decision may violate the federal pact between the Brazilian states, since the water transfer from the river to the Cantareira system affects the water and hydropower supply of all three states, and therefore their social, environmental and economic balance. On the other hand, Sao Paulo has maintained that the project is necessary by arguing that water supply for human consumption has a legal priority over other water use (eg, hydropower supply) and the failure to comply with such priority could seriously harm Sao Paulo's population.
The Federal Public Prosecutor's Office has filed a public civil action against Sao Paulo, claiming that the reduction of water flow from the Jaguari river may cause serious environmental damage and affect the water supply of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, as well as harming the electrical energy production in Rio de Janeiro. Further, it argued that this project is a palliative remedy only, as it cannot end to the ongoing water crisis in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
Due to its federal nature, the crisis has recently reached the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, to avoid public constraint, the three states have entered into an agreement mediated by the National Water Agency, the National Electrical Energy Agency and the National Electrical System Operator, aiming to preserve water supply and energy production. According to the agreement, both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo will yield: Sao Paulo will reduce the water flow rates on two of its dams and Rio de Janeiro will reduce water capture from the Paraiba do Sul river basin. The environmental minister affirmed that these measures will ensure the water supply at least until the end of the year, without affecting the local population. The states suggested that a re-evaluation of the agreement might be necessary, in order to discuss new measures in the future.
Despite the agreement, the conflict may be considered the first serious climate crisis in Brazil in the 21st century. With the potential to affect millions of lives and generate unaccountable legal conflicts, it has revealed the serious risks and potential consequences that the population and government face when a lack of proper environmental policies is combined with long-term climate destabilisation.
For further information on this topic please contact Maria Alice Doria at Doria, Jacobina e Gondinho Advogados by telephone (+55 21 3523 9090), fax (+55 21 3523 9080) or email (email@example.com). The Doria, Jacobina e Gondinho Advogados website can be accessed at www.djga.com.br.
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Maria Alice Doria