A planner’s perspective on Brazil’s water crisis

With water shortages in São Paulo making headlines around the world, Brazil is rethinking its approach to water infrastructure.

For a two-part piece we’re publishing this week and next, we asked Pablo Lazo, leader of Arup’s Latin America master planning and urban design practice, and Arq.Futuro, a think tank and discussion platform focusing on urbanism, for their takes on the current situation in South America’s most populous country.

Below: Pablo Lazo on water, planning, governance, and creativity.

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What solutions are being developed in response to São Paulo’s water crisis? How are the government and the design community reacting?

In recent years the main cities in Brazil have started to realize that their existing infrastructure for water supply and wastewater, and also energy, needs to be more closely integrated with the urban planning framework. This is a very promising development.

Most of the big cities in Brazil need to refocus their planning through a holistic approach. By integrating the various infrastructure systems into their planning framework, they will be on a more sustainable trajectory to improve many services that are now in decay.

Those cities also now understand that they have to have a metropolitan vision. They cannot focus on their original city boundaries because now they are megacities; they have other cities attached to them. So they have realized that they need to change their approach and start thinking about how multiagencies can collaborate.

São Paulo metropolitan region

São Paulo metropolitan region

In a way Brazil, but also a lot of countries in Latin America, has a really forward-thinking attitude with respect to the relationship between design and water. People there are realizing more and more that you need to think about water spatially, not only in an abstract or conceptual way. You have to be able to imagine physical spaces that people are going to use in multiple ways. So water infrastructure needs to do more than just cope with rainwater collection. In an urban environment, it can also bring benefits in terms of public space, public health, and so many other aspects of city life — it requires a creative approach.

Take energy, for example. In São Paulo, the main two rivers are part of the wastewater collection system. But they could do more; the movement of the water in the river as it moves throughout the city could also provide some energy generation. I’m not thinking about a large-scale energy supply, but there could be some overlap, and there could be efficiencies to be gained from more integration with existing systems.

Credit: Flickr user Diego Torres Silvestre CC by 2.0

Wastewater emptying into the Tamanduateí River

What interesting proposals for improving the relationship between water and urban planning have you seen in Brazil?

One is the planning initiative that has started to come out of Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Those cities have already understood that they need to incorporate water elements as part of their strategy for public open space, for example by changing the land use or redeveloping certain areas. But this is not only a recreational and a land-use issue. It also links to the resilience strategy for those parts of the city. In Curitiba and São Paulo, it contributes to the overall stormwater management system.

In a way Brazil, but also a lot of countries in Latin America, has a really forward-thinking attitude.

The second one is about being smarter about working within the water cycle. Local governments want to increase the treatment of wastewater in cities. That’s a very positive thing. We’re waiting to see what happens there. The success of those initiatives is dependent on how the public sector in Brazil sets things up; they need to have private-sector involvement to make them work.

And the third one I would mention is about cities being better prepared for natural disasters and having more resilient urban strategies in place. They’re aware that flooding is a risk in some Brazilian cities and that they need systems that can cope when those issues arise. That’s why they’re paying more attention to the urban planning framework.

Who is “they” in these cases? Is the city government usually leading these developments? What’s their relationship to regional and national governments, and to the private sector?

That’s one of the biggest challenges in Brazil. At the moment government agencies and private-sector companies are trying to solve these issues at three different levels — city, state, and federal. And cooperation is very difficult to achieve, partially because of the fragmentation of political parties in Brazil, but also because there is no clear overarching strategy about how to begin the transformation that everyone recognizes is needed.

Tietê River in São Paulo

Tietê River in São Paulo

So in São Paulo, which is probably the most progressive state, there’s an initiative at the city level to create an entity that will tackle water management in the city of São Paulo and the metropolitan region, and that will integrate members of the federal and state entities that are going to be driving these strategies at the higher levels.

But because these cities are in such a critical position with their current water infrastructure, people at all levels recognize that the model needs to change. They know they need to be forward thinking.

Questions or comments for Pablo Lazo? Email pablo.lazo@arup.com.

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