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Water & Sanitation

Living with Drought: Lessons from Brazil’s Semiarid Region

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 23 2020 (IPS) - No one died of hunger during the worst drought in Brazil’s semiarid ecoregion, between 2011 and 2018, in sharp contrast to the past when scarce rainfall caused deaths, looting, a mass exodus to the South and bloody conflicts.

Social programmes such as Bolsa Familia (family grant), an expansion of pensions for retired peasant farmers and assistance to low-income disabled and elderly people helped the poor overcome their vulnerability in the semiarid region, where more than 27 million people live in 1,127,953 square kilometres, slightly larger than the size of Bolivia.

But without the water supply solution represented by tanks and other devices to collect the scant rainwater, the tragedies of the past would certainly be repeated in the semiarid region, which occupies most of the Brazilian Northeast and northern strips of the Southeast.



More than 1.1 million tanks that harvest rainwater from rooftops ensured human consumption. The 16,000 litres held by each tank were used up during the unusually long dry periods, but the system made the distribution of water by tanker trunks, generally carried out by the military, more efficient.

In addition, the “technologies” or different ways of storing water were disseminated to more than 200,000 families in order to ensure food production on family farms, which total 1.7 million in the semiarid region.

The distributed water infrastructure guarantees better quality food for the farmers themselves, supplies towns and cities in the country’s interior and boosts the local economy.

According to the Articulação Semiárido Brasileiro (ASA), a network of more than 3,000 organisations, including trade unions and farmers’ associations, cooperatives, non-governmental organisations and social movements, some 800,000 small farms are still in need of tanks that collect water for agricultural production in order to universalise this technology.

ASA, created in 1999, promoted the One Million Rural Water Tanks programme, which was made a public policy by the government in 2003. It then expanded the initiative into the One Land, Two Waters Programme, which incorporated rainwater harvesting for crops and livestock.

The basic principle is “coexisting with the semiarid”, instead of insisting on the old failed strategies of “combating drought”, based on the construction of large structures that do not serve the scattered rural population, who are the most affected, but rather favour the large landowners.

Coexistence is not limited to the water question, but extends to education, knowledge of local conditions, ecological forms of production, and clean sources of energy.

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