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Sao Paulo's Drought Pits Water Prospectors Against Wildcatters


In Brazil, prospectors are hoping to strike the mother load. And what they are drilling for isn't your usual scarce resource, as NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro explains.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The drill bores through the concrete floor of the loading bay of a large factory, spewing up mud and rock. Precious minerals or oil have been the traditional target of operations like this. But here in Sao Paulo, there is a massive drought. And everyone's looking for one thing that used to be in abundance here - water.

MAURICIO AFONSO DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mauricio Afonso dos Santos has been drilling wells for 20 years. In a city, it requires precision and technology, he says. "We dig down between 500 feet and 1,200 feet to find potable water," he says. "We have to be extremely careful. As you can tell right here, we're 10 feet away from the side of the building," he tells me. He says his orders have doubled in the last year and have come from some unusual places, including a love motel.

DOS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because they use a lot of water and they had a lot of rooms and a lot of turnover of clients, so they had a big demand for their own source of water, he's saying.

DOS SANTOS: (Laughter) Great. (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Until the water crisis, most people wanted a well simply to reduce their water bill," he says. But now it's because they're afraid they won't have any water at all. Many parts of Sao Paulo have seen their water cut off for days at a time.

UNIDENTIFIED MANAGER: The public system cannot afford to supply us the amount of water we need. That's why we had to dig a well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the manager of the company where the well is being dug today. He doesn't want his name or the company name used because of corporate policy restricting discussion of logistics issues. In the area of Sao Paulo where his company is based, there is severe water rationing already taking place.

UNIDENTIFIED MANAGER: So an industry to have this kind of uncertainty of water supply is a very hard.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think the drought is affecting businesses?

UNIDENTIFIED MANAGER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, some economists say that the drought here could shave off 2 percent of GDP. Drilling director Mauricio Afonso dos Santos says it's not only businesses. Sixty percent of new orders are by private condominiums, he says. He has an established track record and works within the law, but there have been many new wildcat operators that have sprung up during the water crisis who don't have the technical expertise to do the job right. Carlos Giampa is a geologist at the Brazilian Association of Subterranean Water. He says there's a clandestine drilling fever taking place across the city. He says only 20 percent of the wells being dug meet guidelines.

CARLOS GIAMPA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The well is not just a hole in the ground," he says. "It's a geological engineering work. Clandestine wells are a great potential spot of contamination for the groundwater." He says they are an environmental danger. Giampa says the subsoil of the city is heavily polluted. That's why wells have to be dug so deep. If you don't use the right equipment, you can affect the aquifer.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Water isn't just on everyone's minds here these days. It's actually pulling people out onto the streets. At a protest last week, hundreds chanted that water is a resource that must be preserved. Many in the city blame the local government for the shortage, saying that in advance of the elections and the World Cup, they didn't want to take the necessary measures. Mario Constantino is a 23-year-old activist.

MARIO CONSTANTINO: I think we are already in a deep crisis. And that's bad enough. While most of Sao Paulo's people are already - we're facing lack of water. And well, that's a problem of public health. That's a problem for economy, for people's jobs. So I'm worried about the future. But I'm also worried about the present.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the drilling site, the head of the company that is digging the new well says he's worried about the present, too, which is why he moved his family out of Sao Paulo altogether this past month after his building went under water rationing.

UNIDENTIFIED MANAGER: A lot of citizens of Sao Paulo are moving to the countryside to, you know, escape from this kind of a situation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's become, he quips, a water refugee. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.