“With electricity and water, this place is heaven on earth.”
That is the opinion of several residents I spoke with last summer during a visit to Milhã, in the center of the state of Ceará, Brazil. In this rural, semi-arid region communities are small and close-knit, and many families have lived there, often in the same houses, for generations. People love the place, but they aren’t unaware of the difficulties of living without the modern conveniences that we in the US take for granted. When electricity arrived to the houses a few years ago, it was a huge improvement in their quality of life, bringing lights and other conveniences (particularly television). When water arrives, they say, it will be heaven.
That is precisely what Columbia Water Center’s project in Brazil was doing – bringing water to people’s homes for the first time.
In rural Ceará State, water is scarce. The rain falls during a few months of the year, with virtually none the rest of the time. People have adapted by building small reservoirs, reservatorios, to store water for the dry season. This works to a certain extent, but the reservoirs can run dry, and then people are dependent on tank trucks, carros-pipa, that make the rounds. While some communities do have supply systems to deliver water to the homes at least part of the year, others do it the old fashioned way – filling small barrels by hand and carrying them home on the backs of mules or other animals. Families can make five to ten trips a day, walking kilometers each way. It is often the children who get this chore, which interferes with school attendance, not to mention play. A young man who had moved away to the capital city of Fortaleza (and was back visiting) told me that this was one of the main reasons he left. Carrying water every day is not heaven.
The CWC project, which is funded by the Pepsico Foundation, produced the first Municipal Water Plan in Brazil, or PAM in Portuguese, which surveyed the entire Municipality of Milhã, (like a county, 312 square miles) and detailed the state of the water supply in each community, what physical and hydrologic characteristics were present, and what, after analysis by project engineers and sociologists, might be the most appropriate system to bring good quality water to each home.
Both the local mayor and the State Agriculture Agency immediately embraced the PAM, seeing its potential to solve the water problems. The CWC team in Brazil didn’t leave it there, though. They took two of the communities described in the PAM, and, following the plan’s recommendations, built the infrastructure as demonstration projects.
The community of Ingá is small, but lively. There are thirteen households, but they are really one large, extended family. They had no water supply system at all, and were ready and willing to do whatever it took to get one. It was a good opportunity for the CWC team to test the PAM process all the way through.
Project engineer Silvrano Dantas said, “We chose Ingá for the project because of all the communities that we analyzed, Ingá was one that didn’t have any water supply system. We could control the process from scratch, from the concept to the implementation to the management plan. Our analysis could determine what was really best for the community.”
In Ingá they purchased a pump, which they placed in a reservoir that has water all year, built a water storage tower, and installed pipes and taps to all thirteen homes. When I visited in July, the system was days away from completion.
The other community, Pedra Fina, was an example of a community which, like many, had a partial system already. This can sometimes be more difficult to work with than starting from scratch, because what is already there may not be well thought out. The PAM determined that in Pedra Fina the existing pump and tower, which was serving some of the community members and not others, would be sufficient to cover everyone if the system was completed. The community was skeptical; they had heard this before, but the CWC team convinced them to trust one more time. The project team completed the water delivery system quickly, and all 103 households were enjoying running water by the time I visited.
The CWC team combined sociological and technical analysis to make the infrastructure projects work where others had failed. They had seen how a technically well designed system that didn’t fit into the social or cultural structure of a community would break down in the long run. Our team was made up of sociologists and engineers, both, who had to learn to understand and work with each other before they could work with the communities.
Sociologist Daniele Costas said, “It was a challenging but rewarding experience. In solving the problem of water in these communities, we found out that the two disciplines of engineering and sociology were complementary. At the beginning we would have team meetings with long discussions, but we learned how important it was to work together.”
The success of these two projects served to encourage the local government even more. The mayor of Milhã, Jose Claudio Dias de Olivera, pledged to use the PAM to ‘universalize’ water in the municipality. That is to say, one way or another, every resident, over 14,000 people, would have reliable water service to their homes. The office of the Secretary of Agriculture and FUNASA, the national health foundation, supported this commitment, each offering money and manpower to replicate the project in other under-served communities. The state and national agencies are also pursuing a plan to create PAM’s, following our example, in other water-challenged municipalities.
To facilitate the replication process, the CWC project also produced a how-to manual, detailing the exact technical specifications for the construction of each type of applicable water delivery system. Whatever the recommendation in the PAM – to use a reservoir, a well, a cistern, etc. – the community has step by step instructions on how to proceed.
Another post will follow reporting on CWC Assistant Director Dan Stellar’s visit to Milhã this November, to participate in a celebration of the success of the project.
Learn more about the infrastructure project by watching this short summary video:
or this more detailed video: