By Mario Osava
Brazil is considered a country rich in water resources, with its enormous underground aquifers and mighty rivers. But recognition of the vital importance of rainwater begins where it is most scarce: in the semiarid interior of the northeast.
“My father used to sleep very little, because at night he had to carry water, and during the day he worked in the fields. And even so, he lived to the age of 84,” says Francinete Gomes Viana. The closest water was three kilometers away, in a dam which also dried up sometimes, forcing him to go even farther to find water, “13 kilometers away,” she told Tierramérica.
From the time she was a little girl, “I had to go out at four in the morning to wash clothes, and would come back under the hot sun.” She was spared from this task for a number of years when she went to school in Ouricurí, a city of 33,000 people located 52 kilometers from her hometown of Laginha in western Pernambuco, one of the nine states in the Brazilian northeast.
Nine years ago, Viana obtained a water tank that stores 16,000 liters of rainwater for drinking and cooking, and was freed from “bad, polluted water” and the need to depend on faraway reservoirs. As well as making life easier, rainwater tanks have improved everyone’s health, she reported.
“The children don’t get diarrhea anymore, and the old people get sick less,” concurs her neighbor, Francisca da Silva, 49, who has lived all her life in Laginha and is also a beneficiary of the One Million Water Tanks Program (P1MC), initiated in 2001 by Articulação no Semi-Árido Brasileiro (ASA), an umbrella group that links more than 700 non-governmental organizations, trade unions, cooperatives and associations in northeastern Brazil.
Viana, 37, is the secretary of the local Small Farmers Association and the mother of three children, who no longer suffer from the “stomach problems” that used to mean a trip to the hospital “every two weeks.”
She attributes this change to the fruits and vegetables she grows herself thanks to the “calçadão” tank system, another rainwater collection technique promoted by ASA, in this case to provide water for family farming.
The “calçadão” is a huge, slightly inclined slab of concrete 200 square meters in size that sits on the ground. Rainwater flows down this flat surface and is channeled into an underground tank with a storage capacity of 52,000 liters.
ASA views access to water as a basic human right, which is why it works to promote the distribution of small-scale infrastructure to capture and store rainwater for human consumption and irrigation.
The area in which it works, the semi-arid biome of northeastern Brazil, stretches across 970,000 square kilometers – an area larger than Germany and France combined – and is home to around 21 million people, roughly 11 percent of the Brazilian population.
It is the semiarid region with the most precipitation in the world, an average of 750 millimeters of rain a year. Although this can be reduced to as little 200 millimeters a year in times of especially severe droughts, and total annual rainfall is concentrated in a few short months, it is still possible to live and grow food here, insists ASA.
The solution is to store water for the nearly eight months of the dry season, making optimum use of the limited supply available and preventing evaporation, using the techniques that have been developed, agro-ecological practices, and efficient water management.
The idea is to coexist with the semiarid climate, which means opposing the major infrastructure projects that form part of the official government policy of “fighting drought”. The most ambitious of these is the diversion of water from the São Francisco River to supply 30 reservoirs and increase the flow of rivers in the northern part of the semiarid region, hundreds of kilometers from the São Francisco’s original course.
The megaproject, which encompasses two canals under construction since 2007, will cost 6.85 billion reais (more than four billion dollars) and will benefit 12 million people in large, medium and small cities, according to the Ministry of National Integration, which expects the project to be completed by 2015.
With less than a third of that money, the goal of distributing one million rainwater tanks, which ASA had originally set for 2008, could have been met.
The government’s support for the initiative was not sufficient to meet the target, although it accounts for the bulk of the financing for the construction of the 351,140 water tanks and 8,799 rainwater collection systems for agricultural production distributed as of July of this year.
In addition, the water tanks are provided to a “scattered” rural population made up by the poorest families who are most vulnerable to the shortage of water and are not reached by the big “drought-fighting” projects that will merely heighten inequalities in access to water, ASA stresses.
But the new government that took power in January has opened up an “interesting” phase, according to Jean Carlos Medeiros, coordinator of P1MC. President Dilma Rousseff, who wants to eradicate poverty in Brazil, has adopted the technologies developed by ASA in her Water For All program.
A target has been set to install 750,000 water tanks for human consumption and 150,000 for agricultural production, as well as another 23,000 rainwater collection systems for irrigation in the semiarid region.
The overall goal is to “universalize” the distribution of household water tanks to all of the rural population who face a shortage of drinking water, “between 1.2 and 1.4 million families,” estimates Medeiros. The ASA has proposed instead to install 210,000 tanks in two years, he told Tierramérica.
This much slower rate of progress is due to a combination of bureaucratic obstacles on the government side and ASA’s mobilization capacity and principles. “We shouldn’t violate our methodology to meet a target,” said Alba Cavalcanti, assistant coordinator of ASA’s One Land and Two Waters Program. The first of these “two waters” is drinking water for human consumption, while the “second water” is for agricultural production.
A municipal committee with representatives from different sectors chooses the beneficiaries, who are expected to make a matching contribution in the form of work and training in water management. For ASA, the water tanks are also a “catalyst” for community organization and participation, raising people’s awareness of their rights, and training, stressed Medeiros.
The “second water” for agricultural production involves a number of different techniques in addition to the “calçadão” tank system.
An underground reservoir allows Antonio da Costa, president of the Small Farmers Association of Laginha, where 40 families live, to grow mangos, guavas, cassava, beans, corn and above all, papayas. Da Costa’s papaya trees are laden with fruit in surprising numbers and of remarkable size in an area where the land is supposed to be barely fertile.
A large piece of plastic buried beneath the beds of streams that form during the rainy season, and a brick barrier that retains the rainwater to soak a large section of land and fill nearby wells, keeps the soil moist for several months, explains the 56-year-old farmer, the father of four daughters, two of them teachers, and one son.
“My gastritis has gotten better, because I eat what I grow myself, without toxic chemicals,” he says, showing us the mixture of manure and plants he uses to fertilize his crops.
Rock ponds take advantage of the holes in rocky ground that naturally capture rainwater, to which walls are added to accumulate more water, which is used to provide drinking water to animals, for irrigation and to wash clothes. These ponds are for community use, as is the collective tube well used to manually pump underground water.
The local farmers develop a sense of ownership of these technologies, said Edesio Medeiros, coordinator of the “second water” program at the Center for Training and Support for Small Farmers of Araripe, which assists the families in Laginha and works throughout the western area of Pernambuco.
“And we promote exchanges, taking them to other communities to share their knowledge,” he added.