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BRAZIL: Water Abounds in Amazon, But Sanitation Is Scarce

Mario Osava

ALTAMIRA, Brazil, Aug 19 2010 (IPS) - It might seem a bit strange to adopt, in the Amazon rainforest, a solution developed for drought-stricken northeastern Brazil. But rainwater collected on rooftops and stored in tanks is helping to improve the health, hygiene and overall living conditions of rural communities in the jungle.

Altamira neighbourhood that will be flooded by the Belo Monte dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Altamira neighbourhood that will be flooded by the Belo Monte dam. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Since 2006, the Sanitation Improvement and Rainwater Use and Storage Programme (PROCHUVA) run by the government of the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil has benefited 10,000 families in 77 communities, with tiled rooftops, rainwater collection tanks and sanitation systems.

The problem is that even though there is plenty of water in the Amazon jungle, it is generally not potable and is often contaminated with the sewage and waste of local communities, which spreads diarrhea, hepatitis and other diseases.

Osvaldo Pantoja Ferreira, 69, who has 14 sons and daughters living in different parts of the Amazon jungle, suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and hardly has the strength anymore to carry his 20-litre jerrican of water from the river to the house where he lives with his wife.

He has to haul the jug up some 100 metres of steep, slippery hillside. And “in the summertime it’s even harder,” because the water level in the river goes down and the water is farther away, he says.

“Caracol”, as everyone calls him, worked out a system to make it easier. Four years ago he installed his own rainwater collection system, putting gutters around the edge of the roof, which carry the water into a 1,000-litre tank at one corner of the house and into a smaller one on the other side.

But he stills lugs water up from the river, because he believes it is better for drinking.

Where he lives, in the state of Pará, which borders Amazonas to the east, there is no programme like Prochuva, which was inspired by the “one million tanks programme” promoted since 2003 in the semi-arid northeast — Brazil’s poorest region — by the Articulação no Semi-Árido (ASA), a network of 750 non-governmental organisations, labour unions and social and religious groups.

The programme, which involves heavy community participation, has already installed 300,000 rainwater harvesting tanks throughout the northeast.

Before installing his own rainwater tanks, Caracol bought two water pumps, but “the motor was weak” and they broke. “I lost money,” he laments. His electric generator broke down next, breaking the television set — “which had a good image, thanks to the parabolic antenna” — along with it.

River will recede – permanently

When the Belo Monte hydroelectric station is built, most of the water will be diverted away from the Volta Grande (Big Bend) of the Xingu river, a 100-km sweeping curve in the river where Caracol built his wooden house.

Belo Monte will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam, after Three Gorges in China and Itaipú on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. But the mega-project has run into fierce resistance from indigenous groups, environmental organisations and other social movements.

When the hydropower station comes on stream in 2015, the Volta Grande will be condemned to an eternal summer dry season. In the Amazon, it is water that determines the seasons and the cycles of life. Winter, from December to April, is rainy season, when it rains almost every day. In the summer, the water level in the rivers plunges, and on the Xingu river, beaches, waterfalls and thousands of small stone islands emerge.

But before the water level goes down permanently, Caracol, who used to be an expert hunter who shot jaguars and giant otters in the eye to get the best possible price for an intact pelt, hopes his home will have been hooked up to the national power grid so he can once again have a working TV set and refrigerator, as well as the possibility of pumping water up from the Xingu river.

“The electric grid is now 15 kilometres away and is supposed to get here in the next few months,” says Caracol.

The government of leftwing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva plans to bring electricity to 2.5 million rural families through its “Light for All” programme.

Using their own generators, Arara and Juruna indigenous communities, who also live along the Volta Grande, pump water to their villages from the Xingu, one of the largest and longest rivers in the southern Amazon river basin.

But they are worried that the construction of the dams and the canals that will be put in to divert the water flow will make their river water dirty.

“We don’t know what quality the water we consume will have” when the dam is built, says Arlete Juruna, the daughter of the chief of the Paquiçamba indigenous reserve, which is home to 92 people.

She is also concerned that fish stocks will shrink, as fish, along with the “tracajá” or yellow-spotted Amazon river turtle, are their main source of food.

“There are no aquifers here, just rocks; you can’t find water even if you drill 200 metres down,” says José Carlos Arara, the leader of the 150-member Arara community on the Volta Grande, who is staunchly opposed to the dam.

Monitoring the water will be indispensable because cement and chemical products used in the construction process could contaminate or kill fish or poison people who consume water from the river or who eat the fish or turtles, says Arara. Many species of fish feed in the mud, where sediment is deposited, he points out to IPS.

For others, flooding

Although it is located 40 km upstream of one of the two projected Belo Monte dams, Altamira, the biggest city along the Xingu river, with a population of 100,000, will suffer a completely different impact: flooding.

Neighbourhoods of modest wooden shacks in low-lying areas along three “igarapes” or smaller rivers that run into the Xingu river will be flooded.

Cristiana Rodrigues de Matos, a 29-year-old mother of three, knows the house she is living in on the banks of the Altamira Igarape will be flooded.

The house was already halfway underwater in April 2009 — before her family moved into it — when dikes built by large landowners along the stream broke down as a result of torrential rains, forcing 30,000 people out of their homes.

At the time, she and her family lived a block away from the small river. But four months ago they moved to the house they now rent, despite the risks, because rental prices for the houses along the river plummeted as a result of last year’s flooding, says Rodrigues, who works as a domestic and whose husband is a bricklayer.

The environmental impact assessment for the Belo Monte project states that 4,747 housing units and shops will be flooded, and a total of 16,420 people will have to be relocated from low-lying neighbourhoods in Altamira.

These areas have no sanitation and dump most of their waste directly into the rivers, and use water from easily contaminated shallow wells.

The people who are relocated — who according to opponents of the dam will be twice the number estimated by the environmental impact assessment — will receive compensation and will be resettled in higher-lying areas of the city, with sanitation and decent housing, according to the authorities who are responsible for permits for the dam.

But “in the case of Tucuruí those promises did not come true,” says Vanusa Soares, referring to another dam, which was built in the 1980s in the state of Pará. She has raised her house on stilts that are nearly one metre high, in an attempt to keep it dry in case of a repeat of last year’s flooding.

But none of the houses along her street will survive the flooding caused by construction of the Belo Monte dams.

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