I recently returned from a trip to visit our project site in Ceará, Brazil. Although Ceará features beautiful beaches and a well developed tourism industry along parts of its coast, the interior of Ceará is hot and dry, with a poor and diffuse population. The combination of poverty and a low population density has meant that the provision of basic services has been a challenge. It was only within the last decade or so that the majority of the population received access to electricity, and much of the region still lacks access to a safe and reliable supply of water.
As my colleague Julia Hitz described in an earlier post, the Columbia Water Center’s work has focused on supplying water in these rural regions. While our project has included infrastructure construction, the heart of our work is a municipal water plan (PAM) for Milhã, an area in the central region of the state. The PAM presents a blueprint for providing universal access to water across Milhã (population 14,000).
The PAM is a unique document – while there have been numerous attempts to provide access to water in the region, most of these have been only half-successful at best, often because there was no comprehensive plan to guide them. Many people we talked to, including government officials and non-profit leaders, indicated that it’s not the actual construction of water systems that is the challenge, it’s knowing what systems to construct in what settings. Therefore, almost everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about the PAM and could see its importance. The next phase of our work, in 2011, will focus on working with the state to integrate the PAM concept. Our team will be distilling the elements of a successful water plan, and working with the state government and various municipalities to help them create and evaluate their own PAMs.
While it was thrilling to see the success of the PAM and discuss how this concept will be scaled up, the real highlight of the trip came when we went to Milhã, the site of the original PAM. Within Milhã, the mayor has been so inspired by the PAM that he has declared his intention to make universal water coverage a focus of his administration, and to follow the entire blueprint in the PAM to provide access to water to the entire community. Many community members have taken a role in constructing and managing water projects, and there is a great deal of excitement in the region. In fact, the municipality was so enthusiastic, they held a great event (read: party) to celebrate the launch of the PAM in conjunction with our visit.
The event featured talks by politicians, community leaders and members of the CWC teams in Brazil and New York. Music was played, including the Brazilian national anthem, and as a true sign of celebration, fireworks were set off outside the event hall. After the formal program, there was a social gathering, including food and drink, and plenty of time to discuss the project and its benefits with community members.
While our project leaders from Brazil told us the event was a big deal for the community members and something they would remember for a long time, for us, the visitors, it was a truly moving experience. The grace, strength and optimism of the community members, as well as their enthusiasm for the project, was deeply inspiring. Both my colleague and I agreed that the PAM launch was one of the highlights of the project so far. Often times in the water and development world progress is slow, and the results and impact seem far removed from our daily work. The trip to Ceará, and the launch event in Milhã, were a great demonstration of why this work really matters.