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Brazilian Communities Find Ways to Live in Semiarid Environment

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 26 2010 (IPS) - No longer is the image of women trudging through fields carrying heavy water vessels on their heads just a “quaint” scene of Brazil’s semiarid northeast, for outsiders.

Family in northeast Brazil proudly display their rainwater tank. Credit: Roberta Guimarães, courtesy ASA

Family in northeast Brazil proudly display their rainwater tank. Credit: Roberta Guimarães, courtesy ASA

In many parts of this impoverished region, it’s also an increasingly rare sight for the locals, as it gradually becomes a thing of the past, thanks to a simple initiative that is spreading to other countries: the harvesting and storing of rainwater.

“Women used to have to walk six or eight kilometres carrying 20 litres of water on their heads,” Naidison Baptista, executive coordinator of ASA, an organisation that implements the “One Million Rural Water Tanks” programme, told IPS. “If they made two trips a day to collect water, they’d cover 24 kilometres or more every day.”

ASA stands for Articulação no Semi-Árido Brasileiro (roughly, Networking in Brazil’s Semiarid Region), a forum of over 700 non-governmental organisations from nine northeastern states (Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, and Sergipe) and two southeastern states (Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais).

Drawing on popular wisdom and social mobilisation, ASA has built household water tanks to store rainwater, and has secured financing from the Social Development and Hunger Eradication Ministry.

The programme relieves women from the task of hauling water, but that’s just one of the positive aspects of this initiative aimed at ensuring safe water for one million families –about one million people in all, in a region of 24 million inhabitants. “At the end of the day, women would be feeling so tired and low, that things at home would be really difficult. All that changed with the tanks,” Baptista said.

Having lessened their workload, women now have more time at home for themselves and their children. This has led to an improvement in the children’s performance at school, and women have been empowered to engage more actively in the life of the community. According to Baptista, “It’s not just about improving the supply of drinking water; it’s about improving the quality of life.”

He says there’s something that sets this programme apart from others, a “political” difference that he considers crucial. “The goal is to build a process that enhances living conditions in the semiarid environment, so that people can adapt to it, instead of attempting to combat droughts,” he said.

For centuries Brazil implemented drought-combating programmes aimed at distributing water, benefiting big business, and clearing the authorities’ “consciences, by hiring workers who were starving from the effects of the droughts, and putting them to work on large infrastructure projects on property owned by the rich,” Baptista said.

“This drought-combating approach only results in a concentration of power and wealth, and provides welfare-based solutions to water shortage problems,” he said

The water tank programme has an entirely different aim. To begin with, it “makes water widely available and doesn’t concentrate it among a handful of people.”

Also, it doesn’t attempt to fight drought in the country’s northeast, where “it is a naturally-occurring phenomenon.” Instead, it seeks to “develop strategies that will allow the people of the semiarid region to live in that environment, by creating ways to collect enough water for everyone,” Baptista said.

The vegetation that characterises this ecoregion, known as “Caatinga” or white forest — the only biome that is exclusively indigenous to Brazil — has a natural water deficit, and the amount of rainfall is not enough to compensate for evaporation.

The ecosystem has an average annual rainfall of 300 to 800 millimetres. While that isn’t much, it is enough to harvest the water and use it for drinking and cooking purposes during the drought months, which range from eight to 11 months a year, depending on the area.

ASA has calculated that a 40-square-metre rooftop is large enough to fill a 16,000-litre tank of water collected through clean drainage pipes that connect to the tank. The water is then chlorinated, and the tanks are sealed shut to prevent children from opening them, for safety reasons.

A total of 294,949 tanks were built from Jun. 1, 2000 to Aug. 31 of this year, engaging 313,994 families, and 273,124 people received training in water resource management. The programme operates through committees formed in 1,076 municipalities throughout the region, according to ASA data.

The investment required is negligible compared to other large works, Crispim Moreira, national secretary of nutrition and food security at the Social Development Ministry, said. Building one unit costs some 700 to 1,052 dollars, depending on local prices. But according to Moreira, the biggest difference this initiative has compared to traditional solutions is how it engages families and communities in the construction of the water tanks.

The process starts with the community discussing and deciding which families will be given priority, based on the number of children, the presence of elderly family members, and whether the household it is headed by a woman or not.

The second stage is the building of the tank itself, which takes about five days of work and involves one construction worker from the project working together with the beneficiary family.

“This is different from a process where a company comes, drills a hole, sets up the tank, and leaves. By building the tank themselves, the families are achieving something, they’re not receiving a handout,” Baptista said.

In his opinion, this is a “powerful political instrument,” because “in Brazil, policies and target beneficiaries are typically determined by the authorities: a legislator, a mayor, a priest or a minister.”

This initiative, by contrast, emerged from the community itself.

“The tanks were not designed in a laboratory, they’re based on actual experiences of communities with a tradition of harvesting rainwater. ASA drew on that tradition and perfected this technology,” he said.

Another positive aspect is that there has been a clear improvement in the health of the families that have water tanks. In particular, the infant mortality rate among these families has dropped thanks to the elimination of diseases caused by parasites found in the dirty water they used to drink.

The programme has also encouraged “adults to increase their participation in income-generating activities for the family,” Moreira told IPS.

In addition, Baptista highlighted the impact the programme has had on local business, as building material sales and demand for construction workers have gone up.

“A lot of people say that this programme is all the region needs to be able to live decently and with their heads held high,” Moreira said.

Another advantage of the programme is that it is environmentally friendly, as it uses something that is naturally available — rainwater — in a sustainable manner.

Already, three countries in the region — Paraguay, Bolivia and Haiti — have contacted the Social Development Ministry to learn more about the “One Million Water Tanks” programme.

Personnel from Moreira’s division have provided training for colleagues in Paraguay and Bolivia for the building of 50 water tanks that will serve as the basis for technology transfer. In Haiti’s case, preliminary visits have been conducted.

For its part, ASA is participating in a global exchange of experiences in community water management, with organisations from Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, under the coordination of the Avina Foundation.

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