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BRAZIL: Water Sources Threatened by Lack of Low-Cost Housing, Sanitation

Mario Osava

SAO PAULO, Jun 8 2007 (IPS) - José Carlos Bezerra knows that the sewage from his house flows directly into the Guarapiranga reservoir, the source of water for millions of people in Brazil&#39s largest city. But what can he do, he asks, if he can&#39t afford to live anywhere but in this slum?

His shack, which is right up against those of his neighbours, is built over the Itupú stream, which receives the untreated sewage and other waste from thousands of "favela" or shantytown dwellings just before it flows into the Guarapiranga River and reservoir, which provides water to 3.8 million people in Greater Sao Paulo, one of the most populous urban areas in the world with 19 million inhabitants.

Concrete posts set in the stream bed hold up the front half of the precarious brick and wood shacks, whose other half is built into the unstable bank of the three-metre deep gully, where the runoff raises the water level significantly when it rains.

"If our houses are demolished, we&#39ll build others," said Luciano da Silva, who like his neighbour Bezerra migrated from Brazil&#39s poorest region, the semi-arid northeast, around 10 years ago to seek work in Sao Paulo, with his wife and young daughter.

Da Silva, who makes a living by finding casual work in construction, had no choice but to live in this erosion-plagued ravine, because he can&#39t afford to rent decent housing and refuses to "invade other people&#39s property" – a reference to the growing homeless squatters&#39 movement in Sao Paulo and other cities.

But he said he does not regret coming to Sao Paulo because in one day he can earn "five times more than what I made in Alagoas," his home state.

However, da Silva and Bezerra are likely to have their homes demolished soon because of sanitation works underway in the favela to channel the stream.

Their only hope is if the city government&#39s social assistance department at least offers them an empty lot where they can build new shacks.

Euclides Lima, 72, who also came from the northeast, but 40 years ago, is more hopeful.

The retired construction worker and father of four believes that he will only lose one-third of his house, which he built mainly on firm ground, but on a curve in the stream. Thinking ahead, he constructed his house so that he could add a second floor on top of the main portion in case he lost the part sticking out over the water.

The three poor migrants from the northeast and their families form part of the 950,000 people living in the Guarapiranga River basin, where the favelas threaten to irreversibly pollute the water consumed by one-fifth of the residents of the Greater Sao Paulo area.

The explosive increase in the population of the river basin, from 550,000 in 1991, was a result of the expansion of the dormitory neighbourhoods around the reservoir fuelled by the area&#39s proximity to Sao Paulo.

The city itself has continued to grow to the south and the west, with the construction of big hotels and companies that have generated jobs for those living in the favelas, said Ricardo Araujo, head of sanitation in the State of Sao Paulo Secretariat of Sanitation and Energy.

"It is crucial not to lose the Guarapiranga system," the second-largest local source of water, which is essential to ensure supplies for the metropolitan region, whose population is expected to climb to 24 million by 2025, said Araujo.

The city&#39s supplies are currently at their limit, and any unforeseen disaster or problem leads to rationing in some neighbourhoods or municipalities.

New sources of water are thus indispensable, said Araujo. He explained that the Secretariat of Sanitation has plans to expand the two current sources in the Greater Sao Paulo region, and to bring in water from an external source, the Ribeira River, which will entail high transportation costs.

Without the Guarapiranga reservoir, it would be necessary to go even further afield in search of water, and the resultant investments and high operating costs would be an intolerable burden for favela-dwellers, he said.

For instance, the need to pump water would drive up the use of energy, which already represents 20 percent of the cost of sanitation in the metropolitan area, noted Araujo.

Other sources of water are also threatened by the demographic pressure, like the Billings reservoir, whose surrounding area is home to around 900,000 people.

Greater Sao Paulo stopped drawing huge flows of migrants from the northeast and other regions in the 1980s, after decades of a steady influx.

But these flows were replaced by "strong internal migration" of people towards the outskirts of the city, as the poor were displaced from the "gentrified" city centres and increasingly built precarious homes in the river basins that are key sources of water for the city, said Marussia Whately, coordinator of the water sources programme of the non-governmental Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA).

While the population of the upper-scale central Sao Paulo neighbourhoods has gone down, poor areas in the southern metropolitan region, like Embú-Guaçú, have seen five to six percent annual growth rates, which means it is the neighbourhoods without sanitation that have been expanding, she explained.

What is needed to save the Guarapiranga River and reservoir are swift, effective measures by the authorities after "years of inaction and ineffectiveness," said Whately, based on ISA&#39s studies and activities in defence of the water basin.

She said the trend in which the population is increasingly concentrated in outlying areas as the city centre empties out must be reversed, but has actually been accentuated by the construction of a new beltway around the city designed to keep out cargo traffic and reduce overall congestion in the city.

Since it is impossible to remove local populations from the areas that have the greatest impact on the water sources, they should at least be "deconcentrated" and measures should be taken to keep the sewage and waste from polluting the water, said the activist.

But that aim is hindered by an inefficient sanitation system that has a limited number of sewage treatment plants, which means wastewater is piped dozens of kilometres across the metropolitan area, said Whately.

Entire municipalities lack sanitation and treatment plants, and merely laying in sewage pipes will only aggravate the problem by carrying the untreated wastewater directly to the reservoirs, without being partially "purged" first by the streams, which has a limited effect, but one that could be improved, she argued.

Araujo, meanwhile, acknowledged the shortcomings of the city&#39s overly-centralised four-decade old sewage treatment system, but denied that most of the wastewater runs into the Guarapiranga River without treatment.

"A large part is channeled" outside of the basin, said the official. The problem is that rainwater runoff and sewage are not always separated, especially in poor neighbourhoods, he added.

With respect to the effects of the beltway, which includes bridges over the Guarapiranga and Billings Rivers, he said he believes it will not draw in large numbers of new inhabitants, because the incentives for an influx of migrants were already put in place by the existing highways that will be connected by the new freeway.

On the other hand, the construction of the beltway will boost the economy in the metropolitan region, thus leading to a reduction in pollution of the water sources, Araujo maintained.

In his view, the main factor in the pollution of the water basins is poverty and the growth of crowded slum neighbourhoods where proper sanitation is difficult to achieve.

Pollution of the water sources is "a socio-environmental problem," agreed Marco Antonio Lucena, administrator of the Guarapiranga Ecological Park, created in 1999 to preserve 250 hectares of forest along a two-kilometre stretch of the 28-kilometre banks of the reservoir.

Environmental education, cultural, sports and social activities in the park target the inhabitants of surrounding slum neighbourhoods, with the aim of drawing the community into participating in the protection of the forests and the reservoir.

Nearly all of the park employees are hired from the surrounding neighbourhoods, which also provide the members of the 16 different football teams that play on the park&#39s football pitches.

The park also works closely with nearby schools, theatre groups and bands put on shows, and the local residents have access to the Internet in the park&#39s telecentre or cybercafé, said Lucena.

Sports clubs that used to attract middle-class members are allies in the environmental conservation efforts, helping to keep the shoreline clean and prevent people from building shacks on the edge of the reservoir, he said.

But today the clubs are in decline, he lamented, because their former members are afraid to cross through the poor and often violent neighbourhoods surrounding the reservoir.

However, the government has plans to create five new parks and revive recreational activities in the area.

Meanwhile, the lack of low-cost housing and sanitation services keeps up the pressure on the city&#39s water sources.

The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (Movement of Homeless Workers – MTST), which carries out large-scale occupations of empty lots on the outskirts of the city to pressure the government for housing solutions, set up a 3,500-family camp from March to mid-May in Itapecerica da Serra, a municipality in the Guarapiranga basin.

The group secured a promise from the government that affordable housing would be built for a large part of the participating families.

Nelson Saule, an expert at the Instituto Pólis, said the MTST and similar movements are fuelling the tendency towards urban sprawl, with the consequent negative effects, running counter to the need to revitalise the centre of Sao Paulo, where the number of empty housing units has grown to 400,000.

The outlying neighbourhoods do not have the physical infrastructure, public services or job opportunities offered by the centre, he said.

But MTST activist Guilherme Boulos said "that is an academic view expressed by people who are not familiar with the realities of the housing shortage, the poor neighbourhoods, and the real needs of their inhabitants."

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