To solve São Paulo’s water crisis, collaboration is key

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

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

Below, Arq.Futuro’s Tomas Alvim and Laura Greenhalgh discuss the links between governance, citizen participation, and culture.


Can you give your perspective of São Paulo’s current water situation?

Tomas: We are facing a drought in Brazil, and due to that we are facing a very dramatic situation in terms of water.

It’s not a continuous problem here in Sao Paulo. It’s an interruption of hours per day, or in some cases days per week, that’s playing out differently in different neighborhoods. It´s raining more consistently in the last few weeks, helping to replenish the city’s reservoirs.

The water crisis which started in São Paulo and is spreading to other cities is the result of a very grave and common problem in Brazil: the lack of urban planning. We are one of the most urbanized countries in the world — 84% of the people live in cities. But we didn’t prepare the infrastructure to support the great influx of people that moved from the countryside to the urban areas in the last few decades.

São Paulo

The government is now working very hard, investing a lot and actually finding solutions, to maintain the supply of water in São Paulo. But the other side of the problem is much more the mindset of the people. The cultural relationship with water has to change dramatically in cities all over the world, and in São Paulo in particular. That is a huge transformation. The population is really starting to understand how precious water is and to rethink their water consumption patterns.

Laura: It’s becoming clearer that there’s not just one solution for the water scarcity in São Paulo. We’re starting to think in terms of a set of actions.

For the first time the São Paulo government is really investing in human intelligence to tackle the water problem. It’s no longer just politicians making these decisions; it’s water experts. This is very good news.

São Paulo residential tower

A state-owned company called SABESP currently manages the city’s water supply and wastewater programs. How is the crisis affecting that model?

Tomas: We think that governance is the most important issue with regard to water in São Paulo. The way that it’s administrated is really quite confused.

The situation has definitely improved in the last few years, though. Nowadays, as Laura said, the president of SABESP and all the staff are very technical, scientific people. The government invited a good team in terms of water studies, water research, and in interventional projects. Just to give you an idea, the Secretary for Sanitation and Water Resources in São Paulo is president of the World Water Council.

Laura: He’s a global leader in that sector.

Tomas: That is a very important move in terms of politics. But there’s a lot more discussion going on today about the governance structure for São Paulo’s water. SABESP is currently contracted by the municipal government, which doesn’t have any direct say in any of the decisions regarding water in the city. The city government and the state government don’t play any role in managing São Paulo’s water. The contract between the municipality and SABESP is the biggest water-supply contract in the world. And of course nowadays people are rethinking this system.

We’ve developed two core beliefs about cities. One is the importance of participation from the private sector, the government, and civil society.

You mentioned the need to change cultural attitudes about urban water. Can you say more?

Tomas: Through the work we’ve been doing in Brazil, we’ve developed two core beliefs about cities. One is the importance of participation from the private sector, the government, and civil society in discussions about cities. You have to bring these three players together in order for urban transformations to be solid, to be progressive. That is the new trend all over the world, but in Brazil in particular, and we strongly believe in it.

The other core principle is the importance of citizen involvement, of citizenship, in Brazil. Due to the dictatorship we passed through, I think we lost this sense of how a citizen can and should work to improve his own city, his own neighborhood, his own street, his own building. But successful projects require this kind of participation.

Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, the first in a series of military dictators to rule the country between 1964 and 1985

The water crisis of São Paulo has promoted this kind of civic engagement. It’s clear nowadays how the public is starting to promote solutions and reduce water consumption, even though there’s still a lot of work to do. But we do believe this culture will continue to grow, and because of that we decided to support a project aiming to clean the Pinheiros River next year. We know it’s not a short-term project — it’s a very, very long-term project, because cleaning the river is a huge challenge. But it’s possible; we believe that. If the population is more aware, knows that this is a problem that is going to affect everyone’s lives, they have to participate in this transformation.

Trash on the banks of the Pinheiros River

The other issue that is extremely important is that the government has to change the way it communicates about this problem in order to promote public engagement. The government and civil society have to be connected. You can see that in successful projects in Japan, in the United States, the UK, in the most developed countries — the participation of the wider society in these urban transformations is critical.

One anecdote to keep in mind: Last year, we invited a researcher from California to come to São Paulo. When she flew in, she crossed over the city and saw the river running through it. And when she gave an interview with one of the most important local newspapers she said, “I’m coming from a country, from a state, from a city where there’s a water crisis — because we live in the desert. I just arrived in a city living with a water crisis, and you have a river. How is it possible not to have water?” That is an important subject for discussion.

Tietê River

The river in São Paulo could do many things for the city. It could be supplying water, but that isn’t the case nowadays. And that is something that has to be discussed. There is an interesting PPP being developed in São Paulo to work on this issue.

Another question is how the city should think about using the river for urban regeneration. Arq.Futuro is investing a lot in a partnership that considers this issue. We are going to provoke the people to think about the river in this way.

The government and civil society have to be connected.

Laura: Yes, we’re working with an NGO called Aguas Claras, which means “clear waters.” It’s focused on one of the two most important rivers in the city. We just approved a campaign with a very simple, very direct slogan: “Let’s clear the river?”

Pinheiros River

We intend to put this question to the citizens, to the mayor, to the government, to the private sector, to the church, to everyone. This is our slogan: “Let’s clear the river?” As a question. In the future it will be an affirmation, but now it’s a provocation.

Questions or comments for Tomas Alvim or Laura Greenhalgh? Email or

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