A sign that reads "We are without water" is seen in a toilet at a restaurant in the Morumbi neighborhood, in Sao Paulo January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

With severe water rationing measures looming, the mega-city is set to enter uncharted territory.

São Paulo, along with 93 smaller localities around Brazil, is facing drastic water shortages that could mean up to five days a week without running water starting in April. The mega-city’s largest reservoir, which supplies about 30 percent of the 20 million people living in the metropolitan region, is currently at only 5.1 percent of its capacity. It’s all the result of a severe drought that has extended throughout Brazil’s Southeastern region, and could soon lead to water rationing for as much as 40 percent of the population.

Aside from practical residential concerns, the shortage has affected industry and agriculture across the region, including the production of hydroelectricity, a key component of Brazil’s power grid. Even the carnaval is threatened—celebrations have been cancelled in some dry municipalities and the Río samba groups are altering their choreography to eliminate traditionally prominent water use.

Yet despite dire-sounding government warnings last week—a complete about face from election promises in October that there would be no need for water rationing—there is little sense of how the city will get through the drought. And experts are concerned that there’s no long-term water use strategy in place.

Residents of São Paulo have already been dealing with water shortages for most of the past year. Low water pressure for as much as 18 hours a day in some parts of the city has meant dry pipes in many cases. A recent IBOPE survey found that over 68 percent of the city’s residents reported having problems with their residential water supply in the past month. Small businesses such as car washes, restaurants and laundromats are suffering as they are forced to cut back on services or purchase expensive alternate water supplies.

Thanks to price incentives for reducing water use—and penalties for increasing it— São Paulo residents are getting good at keeping clean with quick showers. Hairdressers are offering discounts to clients who come with their hair already cleaned, while some restaurants have switched to disposable plates in order to cut back on washing. Nurseries are relying on wet-wipes to keep their charges fresh and garages are being swept instead of hosed down.

The latest must-have item in the city is a rainwater cistern. A local group created in October, Cisterna Já, teaches city residents how to make their own mini-cisterns, allowing them to cut back on increasingly expensive and scarce public water supplies.

Consumption in the metropolitan region has already been reduced by a quarter, according to the president of Sabesp, the city’s water utility. Yet the main water loss culprit isn’t long showers, but rather leaky pipes. In order to address the problem, he explained in a recent op-ed, about 64,000 kilometers of buried pipes would have to be replaced.

Experts say they are concerned there is little practical preparation for upcoming shortages and argue that few relevant policy measures are being put into place.

The roots of the water shortage can be traced back to deforestation and industrialization across the region, according to Marcos Sorrentino, a professor of education and environmental policy at the University of São Paulo. A lack of political will to address the problem has led São Paulo to maintain a system of wasteful water distribution and consumption, and the city has missed opportunities to implement water saving and reuse technologies, Sorrentino says.

A demonstrator holds up a bucket with a sign reading "Water, Yes," in reference to water rationing in Sao Paulo January 29, 2015. Residents of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, could soon only have running water two days a week. (REUTERS/Nacho Doce)

Residential water use only accounts for an estimated 6 percent of water usage in the region, which means that even if Paulistas stopped bathing altogether they won’t be able to resolve the “crisis de agua,” as it’s called locally. “Agriculture and industry, the biggest consumers, are only now being mobilized to commit to reducing consumption,” says Sorrentino.

A recent study found that 95 percent of businesses, industries, hospitals and hotels in the state of São Paulo don’t have a water supply contingency plan. “Lack of water will certainly compromise the operations of places that depend on the public water system,” says Rodnei Domingues, the study’s coordinator.

Sorrentino is particularly concerned about the drought’s impact on food prices, and notes that there have already been several water shortage-related protests. “The discontent of the population of the cities in which rationing has started is very large and it is not difficult to predict effects on public health and the expansion of urban violence,” he says.

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