Friday, May 17, 2013

Pollution, Rodizio and the World's Saddest River - São Paulo

The panoramas of São Paulo surprise me still. I will turn down a road while escaping the endless traffic and the vista will open up. I forget sometimes how hilly São Paulo is, even as my poor underpowered car struggles to get up and down the streets. But along with the (electric-wire-infested) views, comes the reality of a layer of brown-grey yuck. Pollution that one pretends not to see becomes too obvious to ignore.

São Paulo has one of the worst air qualities in the world. Hardly surprising when the metro area is comprised of 25 million people, more or less. Three million cars are on the roadways every day, a number that doesn't include the trucks that belch out fumes along the main highways. At this time of year, many people especially children have breathing difficulties and sinusitis;  upper respiratory infections are prevalent. The emergency rooms fill with people seeking relief. If we didn't have a country house to escape to on weekends, I am sure we would all suffer more than we already do--one of my sons had three bouts of sinusitis last year, and had pneumonia the year before. The pollution, more than any other single reason, is why my family will ultimately leave São Paulo.

Various efforts are made to ease pollution here. Rodizio is the most well-known (and cheapest!) One day a week, your car may not be on the street from 7 am to 10 am, nor from 5 pm to 8 pm, the two major rush hours. You know your day by the last number on your license plate. My car has a final number of "5" which means it has restricted hours on Wednesdays. The idea of limited hours is that there will be 3 million divided by 5 (weekdays) fewer cars on the street on each day. The reality is that many people bought second cars for rodizio days. And of course, instead of dividing up evenly between the five days of the week, many more cars have rodizio license plates for the middle of the week. No one wants Monday or Friday rodizio, which cuts into early escapes from the city and late returns.

Pollution extends to the two rivers which border the central districts of São Paulo city. Once upon a time, people swam and rowed on the Tiete (which was called "agua boa" or good water by the native population here...obviously many years ago). Now a fall in that water would kill you. A program launched in 1992 spent 1.6 billion reais (0.8 billion dollars, more or less) on cleaning it up. Two years ago, it was declared a failure. Sewage dumps into the water from countless favelas (slums). Flooding on city streets fill it with garbage, dead animals and worse (yes, there is worse! Don't think about it.)

When I lived here the first time (1998-2001), I suggested to Brazilians that they just fill in the river and make a few more lanes on the highways that border the rivers. Or float pontoons where people could have floating parks. Universally, Brazilians were offended and answered that the rivers could be saved--apparently 145 kilometers from the capital, the Tiete river flows clean and filled with beasties like capivara (this does not impress me--those things are essentially large rats). I am no engineer but I don't think those rivers are salvageable--make them into sewage tunnels and build a park on top. More trees, less pollution.

While I was looking for some of the numbers here, I noted that there is now a video game called "Clean Tiete River" ( It makes me laugh, especially because you are supposed to clean up the garbage without fishing the fish. There are no fish. None. And if there were, they would have four heads and be really really ticked off. They would eat the boat. Now if we could all get serious about cleaning this up instead of playing the video games...


  1. Oh that is a brilliant idea. If we turn the river into roads, maybe, just maybe, that will provide a little traffic relief during the World Cup. Maybe. A little. Love it.