Atibainha River, which supplies the city of Campinas with some of its water supply. (Dom Phillips / The Washington Post)

ATIBAIA, Brazil --  It didn’t matter that I had flown in a micro-light aircraft with Dutch oil engineer Wilfred Van Beek once before, or that I remembered just how abruptly the trike – as pilots call it - would lurch up of the dirt runway into the air. I still clenched up with fear under its giant wing, feeling horribly exposed. Just a seatbelt around my waist, my feet on a metal stirrup, a propeller whirring just inches behind me. Above, below, and around me only sky.

[Related: Brazil reservoirs hit bottom in severe drought]

But pre-flight nerves had been overcome by journalistic curiosity. Aside from the scientists and specialists I would be talking to, what better way to illustrate the scale of the drought hitting São Paulo than to fly low over the dried up, five-reservoir water system that supplies 6.5 million people in South America’s biggest city?

Van Beek has been flying over these reservoirs for a few years now. Since last summer’s rains failed to fall, he has been watching them dry up.


Jaguars Reservoir, part of Cantareira System that supplies half of Sãp Paulo. (Dom Phillips / The Washington Post)

Micro-light flying is what he does for fun, when he is not drilling for oil on Brazil’s offshore rigs, and he has over a thousand hours as a pilot. In 2010, he and his Brazilian wife Fabiana flew all over Brazil, from its deep South to the Amazon, landing on roads, cattle ranches, even a dried-out lake bed. He detailed the journey in this blog – http://www.matomar.com/

That experience provided some reassurance as we swept up to 1,500 feet, on what essentially is a flying tricycle suspended under a kite, bouncing and buffeted in the hot air thermals rising above the ground. Van Beek apologized calmly for the turbulence on the radio, as he controlled the trike with a horizontal bar that moved the wing, occasionally glancing at his instruments and talking to air traffic control.

As we climbed, the turbulence lessened. A bird hovered 50 feet below us and as the rolling, green hills of São Paulo state stretched out in front, a sense of peace overcame the fear. For some reason – perhaps the sound of the propeller - I recalled a phrase from Meryl Streep, when she flew for the first time in a biplane in the film Out of Africa, based on Isak Dinesen’s memoir. “A glimpse of the world through God's eye,” Streep says. “And then I thought, ‘Yes, I see. This is the way it was intended.’”

Reservoirs like Jaguari and Jacareí used to be lush, verdant places - playgrounds for the luxury houses built on the water's edge. “Beautiful lakes, people on jet-skis, boating, fishing,” Van Beek said later. Not any more. As he banked tightly over Jaguari for the second time so I could get a shot of a marooned boat, much of it was just mud and rock and stagnant brown puddles. Wooden jetties stretched uselessly out onto exposed red earth where the water had receded. But the swimming pools of the luxury houses they belonged to were still full.

We flew over two heavily depleted reservoirs and one slightly fuller one, Cachoeira, that morning, and another, Atibainha, later in the afternoon. Even that looked like a bath full of water that someone had pulled the plug out of, leaving a tide mark of ugly red soil exposed beneath the grass and trees.

Collectively, these reservoirs had around 10 percent of their capacity. It seemed pitifully little to supply half of a city as big as São Paulo. I lived in the city for four and a half years before moving to Rio in 2012 but never got used to the scale of the megalopolis. Riding into town on a bus next morning in rush-hour traffic, its endless forests of ugly, concrete buildings and rivers of roaring traffic felt relentless, daunting, unforgiving. Not a good place to run out of water.

The city center teemed with people. Everyone had a water shortage story. “There is water from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then no more,” said Lucinaira Sousa, 32, who lives in the outlying city of Guarulhos. “The water problem has got worse.” In Casa Verde the water cut off regularly. In Brás tap flow regularly weakened to a trickle, said Pedro Dias, 54, a taxi driver willing to drive me out to Jardim Damasceno, a district within the Brasilândia neighborhood, on the very northern edge of the city.

Poor, outlying suburbs like this, called periferia in Brazil, have been worst hit by water shortages. As we edged further into winding, narrow, hilly streets beside the jumble of shacks and tumbledown houses of an enormous favela, Dias said he was nervous. Like much of the periferia, Brasilândia has a reputation for violent crime. Favelas are often run by drug gangs who post look-outs. Dias used to live in a nearby area. He would not have gone there at night.

“If you had been Brazilian, I wouldn’t have taken you,” Dias said. He would have suspected he was being lured out to be robbed. He was the second taxi driver I met in two days with a story about being assaulted at gunpoint. It wasn’t fun, he said. But what can you do?

A church hall beside the favela in Jardim Damasceno, where local health visitors were taking residents through a fitness class, felt safe – although locals described the drug trade as a big problem. As is so often the case in Brazil, the people I met were receptive, curious and friendly as they gathered round on plastic chairs to talk about the water shortage. It took some explaining to get over the concept that I was a foreign journalist from a foreign newspaper, not someone from the water company. They couldn’t quite grasp why I had chosen this church hall, their humble, neglected neighborhood.

In densely populated periferia like this, there is little open space and nowhere else to get your water. It contrasted vividly to the "aeronautical condominium" where Wilfred Van Beek, as a foreign oil engineer, and his family can afford to live, deep in the countryside. Surrounded by green hills, it has a private grass runway. Many of his neighbors are airline pilots who keep single-engine planes in a communal hanger. There is no issue with water supply. Like most of the residents, Van Beek has dug his own well.