Transparency is part of the lifeblood of a democracy, especially in a crisis, though governments are not always honest. But in the age of social media, it's getting harder for officials to hide information. Such is the case of water rationing in São Paulo during the worst drought there in eight decades.
Urban water use accounts for only 9 percent of all water use in Brazil, while irrigation makes up a whopping 72 percent. Nevertheless, the drought has hit São Paulo residents and farmers alike. Many consumers in São Paulo have been dealing with some form of shortages during the drought, forcing them to be strategic about how they use water. Yet for a long time, local officials denied there was rationing.
In reality, water rationing has taken place across São Paulo for months, first reportedly beginning a year ago. But São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin only publicly admitted rationing for the first time on January 14 and Sabesp, the state water utility company, only began releasing information about rationing schedules on January 27. Also last month, an official from São Paulo’s water utility company made an announcement about a drastic measure: residents of Brazil’s biggest city could potentially face five days of water rationing per week if rainfall doesn’t pick up. While unnerving, it was also honest in the face of denial for so many months.
But rationing is hardly a secret, after being widely reported in the press and on social media. While officials refused to explain what was really happening, São Paulo residents took to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to reveal what they saw around them. Last year, there were 6.5 million tweets about the water crisis, and as of early February, there were nearly 900,000 tweets in 2015 alone.
In fact, one of the reasons Sabesp started revealing information about locations and times of rationing stems from a social media campaign. Using the #ToSemAgua hashtag in a campaign organized by the Brazilian Consumer Defense Institution and Minha Sampa, participants asked São Paulo residents to email government and Sabesp officials to make rationing locations and schedules publicly available. They finally succeeded last month.
To complain about shortages and to spread information about rationing, some São Paulo residents are using the hashtag #SPSemAgua, which means “São Paulo without water.” It first started appearing on Twitter in February 2014, when rationing reportedly began, and has since picked up steam as shortages spread. Newspaper O Estado de São Paulo is tracking the hashtag across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, allowing readers to submit their shortage experiences. There are other hashtags as well, such as #CadeAguaSP (Where's the water in São Paulo?) There's also a site called Faltou água, which crowdsources reports São Paulo residents to submit their location and how often they’re experiencing water rationing.
Here are a few examples of what social media users have shared about the water crisis:
- stocking up on bottled water
- going a week without water at home
- trying to shower with a trickle of water
- getting a brown liquid coming out of the faucet
- a restaurant relying on bottled water to operate
- lacking water at home while the street floods
- showering with bottled water and baby wipes
- collecting rainwater
- a joke event called "My Shower, My Life at Governor Alckmin's House" on Facebook, gathering tens of thousands of "participants"
In addition, there's also a Tumblr and Twitter account called Boletim da Falta D'Água (Water Shortage Bulletin), which shares updates on the drought, the latest levels of water reserves and rain forecasts, what leaders are saying, and what's actually happening.
São Paulo has been getting rain recently, but the problem isn't solved yet. The experience provides an important lesson that in the age of social media, it's a really bad idea to try to cover up a crisis.
Image: Andre Bispo/Flickr. Updated 2/26 with paragraph on Boletim da Falta D'Água.