Stormwater politics: Flooding, infrastructure, and urban political ecology in São Paulo, Brazil

Nate Millington
Department of Geography; and Manchester Urban Institute, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK; nate.millington@manchester.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: This paper analyses an ongoing paradigm shift in how engineers have responded to the persistent problem of flooding in São Paulo, Brazil. Until recently, civil engineers largely attempted to expel water from the landscape as fast as possible. Over the past three decades, however, engineers have begun to articulate new mechanisms for responding to flooding that store stormwater in the urban landscape. In this paper, I analyse the construction of what are commonly referred to as piscinões, large-scale detention ponds that pool stormwater in the event of heavy rain events. Drawing from literature in urban political ecology, I argue that piscinões attempt to correct for a complex and unequal landscape, but that they do so in a way that mainly prioritises large-scale engineering solutions to the problem of flooding. As such, in spite of being hailed as indicative of a paradigm shift in flood management, piscinões are instead a continuation of the city’s broader hydraulic and urban paradigms. In response, I consider alternative approaches to the development of multifunctional piscinões that could serve both social and ecological aims. Ultimately, however, I draw from urban political ecology to argue that flooding is fundamentally a political problem that requires a political solution.

KEYWORDS: Water, infrastructure, flooding, climate change, urban political ecology, São Paulo, Brazil