By Ricky Skelton
January 8, 2014

Apparently the next Great War, the battles of 21st Century humanity, will be fought not over oil or territory or religion or football… but over simple water. As the population continues to grow and agribusinesses and industry require ever more to satisfy our produce and product demands, fresh water will become a scarce and valuable commodity. With around 20% of the fresh water entering the planet’s oceans doing so from the shores of Brazil, you can expect that the country will be at the forefront of any battles, as people realise that there are fortunes to be made and power acquired through our most basic commodity. There have already been disputes over water supplies in many countries, including Bolivia (‘Hasta La Lluvia’ is a film worth watching about it) as poor people were made to pay exorbitant rates for freshly privatised fresh water supplies.

Being one of the Major Cities of the World, you would expect Porcario de Janeiro to be world leaders in at least some aspects of life, and so it has come to pass. In Rio, it is the rich people as well who are having to pay exorbitant fees for their water. Rio is well ahead of other countries in this respect. Rio seems to be on the brink of its own private Water Wars, and may well be pushed over the edge during one of the major events to come in the next couple of years. The whole city recently ran out of water, although as this was put down to the cleaning out of one of the represas that supply the city (perhaps in preparation for those events), then it seemed like a temporary problem. What certainly wasn’t a temporary problem was the selling of caminhao pipa water to Zona Sul condominiums for ten times the usual price. Any good carioca knows how to take advantage of a crisis.

The city, as with many in Brazil, copes very badly with many visitors at peak season, and water supplies seem to dry up even when there has been heavy rain. Many of Rio’s events and the headquarters and accommodation for them will be in Barra da Tijuca and Recreio dos Bandeirantes, the new western sprawl, and it is here also that you can find clues as to how problems might develop. Barra and Recreio have sprung up from literally almost nothing in the last 30 years as construction-worthy land in the Zonas Sul and Norte and Baixada Fluminense became saturated. The mosquito-ridden flood-plain is now flooded with condominiums, apartment buildings and shopping centres, many of which have been built illegally and with ‘resgotos’ taking effluent directly into the lagoons such as Jacarepagua and Marapendi, or the ocean, often with a handy favela nearby to act as the scapegoat. This illegal construction, done in the inimitable carioca style, meant that the infrastructure of the area was only installed after buildings and roads were put up, and was never improved enough to cope with the booming population. Fresh favelas also sprang up as the opportunities arose around the construction industry, with the Rio Centro Conference venue, the Panamerican Games, Rock in Rio, and now the World Cup Broadcast Centre and the 2016 Olympic Village all in the area.

Now Rio de Janeiro is a mafia city, everything (and I mean ‘everything’) is organised and controlled behind the scenes by syndicates of gangsters operating huge schemes while often working in politics or the police. Ordinary working people and even the traficantes have to pay for the privilege of continuing to operate in Rio. There’s the Taxi Mafia; Minivan Mafia; Bar Mafia; Carnaval Mafia; Street- and Beach-Selling Mafia; Car and Business Registration Mafia; and many more. The city is so rotten under the surface that it wouldn’t be a massive surprise that there was even a Mafia Mafia somewhere out there.

So no surprise either then that a Water Mafia seems to be in operation, a scheme to make money out of selling water in periods of no drought. The legalised and still illegal buildings don’t receive water ‘on tap’, but only every few days as it is released from the treatment plant for certain areas only in order to fill up the huge tanks under the underground parking spaces. When the tank empties and no more water arrives to fill it up, the buildings must call a caminhao pipa. These water trucks arrive and charge anywhere from R$500 to R$5,000 per tanker to half-fill your tank, depending on demand. As you can see from the amount parked and gurgling outside buildings of all sizes, demand is usually high.

In fact, higher than ever now. Many buildings have gone 6 weeks without receiving a single drop of water in recent months, with even legally registered buildings spending thousands a month on water wagons. Meanwhile the favelas between them continue to receive water as normal, with people cleaning streets and cars with mangueiras, and kids dancing in the summer spray. Of course, any Soprano worth his salt will tell you that there is no point shaking down people who have no money. The theory goes that if the favelas have water turned off, they will be outside in the roads, blocking them off, whereas people in the larger apartment blocks won’t protest at all. Brazil being Brazil of course, then the water company still sends their large bills to places not receiving anything, and expect/demand that they be paid! Brazilians being Brazilians and with their innate fear of authority, the bills still get paid, with complaints only directed at friends and family.

The story going around is that the represa out in the wilds of the Zona Oeste was dry, although the favelas didn’t seem that way, nor did it explain how the water wagons can find so much of it. The drivers say that it is leftovers from other work (another very carioca way of doing ‘business’), although this explanation for hundreds of full water tankers in the road doesn’t hold water. Unless somebody somewhere has a giant bucket.

So bear this in mind as one of the first Infrastructure Problem Stories of Rio’s Golden Decade. Probably many more to come too, and remember that the underlying factor of anything going wrong in the Cidade Estupidosa is not a lack of organisation. On the contrary, the city is very organised beneath the surface, in a way that will make lots of money for a large scheme of few people. Things only go wrong here because more money is made when they do, but then, you could probably say that about Brazil as a whole.

You can visit Ricky’s blog at

Previous articles by Ricky:

Understanding Brazil: Pizza
Around Brazil: Porcaria de Janeiro
Understanding Brazil: Holding Hands
Understanding Brazil: Statues & Self-Worth
Understanding Brazil: Mosquitoes Part II
Understanding Brazil: The Pub
Understanding Brazil: Protesting
Understanding Brazil: General Elections
Around Brazil: Oktoberfest Parade in Blumenau
Cultural Brazil: The Alambique
Around Brazil: Whale-Watching in Santa Catarina
Brazil: Tainha Time
Deported from Brazil? Part 2
Deported from Brazil? Part 1
Brazil: The President in Florianópolis
Swine Flu in South America?
The Best Club in Brazil…?
The Great Brazilian Animal-Off (Land)
Understanding Brazil: Giving Directions
Understanding Brazil: Driving
Understanding Brazil: Farra do Boi
Brazil: Catching Flu’
Around Brazil: Garopaba
Understanding Brazil: Funerals
Brazil: Bernie the Berne
Around Brazil: Journey to the Amazon Jungle
Around Brazil: Crazy Town Ceremonies
Around Brazil: Crazy Town
Around Brazil: Manaus
Around Brazil: Santarem & Alter do Chao
Around Brazil: Amazon Swarms and Amazon Storms
Understanding Brazil: Playing Pool
Around Brazil: Gurup
Around South America: Peninsula Valdes
Around South America: Patagonia
Around South America: Montevideo, Uruguay
Around Brazil: The Amazon
Around South America: Bariloche, Argentina
Understanding Gringoes: Drinking
The Great Brazilian Fruit-Off Part 2
The Great Brazilian Fruit-Off Part 1
Understanding Brazil: The Kids
Brazil v Argentina: Buying Beer
Understanding Brazil: Mosquitoes
Around Brazil: São Luis
Teaching English in Brazil
Around Brazil: Lenois Maranhenses
Understanding Brazil: The National Anthem
Around Brazil: Barreirinhas
Around Brazil: Jericoacoara to Barreirinhas
Understanding Brazil: Shopping Centres
Around Brazil: Jericoacoara
Around Brazil: Chapada da Diamantina/Lenois
Brazil vs. Argentina: Statues of Christ
Around Brazil: Salvador
Brazil vs. Argentina: The Buses
Around Brazil: Morro de São Paulo (& Itabuna)
Understanding Brazil: The Workmen
Around Brazil: Praa Pateo do Colegio
Around Brazil: Porto Seguro
Around Brazil: Rio de Janeiro to Porto Seguro
Around Brazil: Cristo Redentor
Understanding Brazil: The Sellers
Around Brazil: Ilha de Gigoia
Brazil Journeys: São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro
Understanding Brazil: Dogs Part 2
Brazil: A Lie-In in Downtown São Paulo?
The Best Job in Brazil: Ankle Specialist?
Understanding Brazil: Dogs
Brazilian Places: Ilha do Santa Catarina (Floripa)
Classic Brazilian Journeys: South to Florianopolis
Understanding Brazil – The Shower
Brazil: Boats on the Amazon
Brazil: Understanding Novelas
Brazil: Bus fires in São Paulo – always a bad thing?

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