Bringing Water to Rural Communities in Brazil

by | 9.19.2011 at 2:59pm | 1 Comment
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From its stunning array of diverse ecosystems and biodiversity to its rich and varied cultural history, Brazil is a country of contrasts. Though it isn’t even noon yet, our group has already experienced quite a few striking contrasts first hand.

Caatinga is the predominant type of vegetation found in the sertão. This photo was taken at the end of a good rainy season when water was still plentiful.

Caatinga is the predominant type of vegetation found in the sertão. This photo was taken at the end of a good rainy season when water was still plentiful.

Early this morning, our small party assembled in Fortaleza, a bustling modern city nestled on the Atlantic coast and the capital of the northeast state of Ceará. But after four hours traveling southwest in 4×4 vehicles, we have arrived at a very different scene. The skyscrapers have all vanished and just a few isolated houses dot the landscape. A good rainy season has left the rolling hills covered in green—the thorny trees, bushes, grasses and cacti that make up the caatinga type of vegetation—and a few small lakes have gathered in the valleys. But our guests assure us that over the coming months, this countryside will begin to wilt and turn brown, and much of the standing water we see will slowly be swallowed up by the sertão, the vast dry region that surrounds us.

Though Portuguese settlers and Brazilians have lived in the sertão since the 16th century, it has never been an easy place to thrive. The primary reason is water. Though the sertão experiences a rainy season spread out over three months every summer, the rest of the year is hot and dry. Making sure there is enough water during this time for human consumption, crops and livestock can be a challenge, and can quickly turn into a crisis during drought years.

A young man carts water from a reservoir along the road to Milhã.

A young man carts water from a reservoir along the road to Milhã. (click to enlarge)

The history of water in Ceará is complicated. Over the past few decades, local and state governments have made progress in building infrastructure and crafting policies to help provide water to rural and poor communities, but there is still much to be done. Many people do not have proper access to water, and some must travel to reservoirs and transport water in jugs back to their homes.  During droughts some communities still rely on antiquated government trucks to deliver water to them. From where we stand now, it seems that it will be a Herculean task for the state to meet its goal of universal water access by 2014.

Our group has come here to study—and celebrate—an innovative project that has already improved water access for 134 families and could be used to help rural and poor communities across Brazil. The seed of this project, a partnership between the Columbia Water Center and the Universidade Federal do Ceará with support from the PepsiCo Foundation, was the construction of custom systems to provide adequate running water to four communities that had, for one reason or another, been left without it.

The Pimentel home with the newly-built CWC water tower in the background.

The Pimentel home with the newly-built CWC water tower in the background. (click to enlarge)

The first stop in our tour is the home of Maria Cardilina Freire Pimentel and her family in Ingá, a small village of about 13 families in the rural municipality of Milhã. After a bumpy ride down a rough dirt road, we arrive at the house, which lies in the shadow of the water tower built by this project. Dona Cardilina greets us with fresh graviola juice and her infectious spirit.

Dona Cardilina is an excellent ambassador for the Water Center’s project, and her husband, Francisco, is the president of the local association that played a key role in its development. Though by most standards Cardilina’s family is very poor, she laughs often and always seems to count her blessings. (These are qualities that I will encounter again and again in the people here, a resilience that combines deep religious faith with the light heart of Brazil.) She explains to us how members of her family used to have to travel several kilometers multiple times a day just to get enough water to meet their basic needs. She admits that she was skeptical of the project at first because in the past, promises to bring water to underserved communities in Milhã either never materialized or were unsustainable. Now that she has running water in her house, she considers it “a gift from God.”

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Video: Doing Laundry in the Days Before Running Water

Dona Cardilina and her husband Francisco. The power switch for Ingá’s water pump, which Franscisco helps operate, is located in the small shed behind them.

Dona Cardilina and her husband Francisco. The power switch for Ingá’s water pump, which Franscisco helps operate, is located in the small shed behind them. (click to enlarge)

We walk down a short path to the edge of the reservoir to inspect the construction that now provides water to Ingá. At the bottom of the path is an electrical shed that powers a pump resting about 40 meters out in the reedy water. Beneath our feet, a pipeline carries the water up to the tower near Dona Cardilina’s house. From there it is distributed to individual households via gravity and a new network of pipelines.

The design and components of Ingá’s new water system are simple, but they are the culmination of a long process that combined scientific research, innovative engineering, detailed project management and social coordination. Though the project has already proved that it can bring water sustainably to these communities in Milhã, perhaps its greatest impact will be in the future, when the knowledge and expertise gained here are used to improve water access, allocation and conservation for rural populations across the state of Ceará.

The town hall meeting at the community center in Milhã.

The town hall meeting at the community center in Milhã. (click to enlarge)

After a quick lunch with José Cláudio Dias de Oliveira, the mayor of Milhã and an important ally of this endeavor, we are off to a town hall meeting being convened to celebrate the project’s success and discuss next steps. The turnout is good; there are few empty seats inside the small community center. Once everyone has assembled, the meeting begins with a rendition of Brazil’s rousing national anthem. Claire Lyons of the PepsiCo Foundation is the first of the project’s partners to address the audience. Through an interpreter, she focuses her speech on the people gathered in the room. “This celebration and achievement belong to you,” she says, “it is you that should be proud.” The project’s principal engineers, Francisco de Assis de Souza Filho and Francisco Osny Eneas da Silva, emphasize that the success of this project is proof that the techniques developed in Milhã could be used to help people in other municipalities. Aside from some mild political angling, the tenor of the meeting is overwhelmingly one of gratitude and celebration.

CWC project partners and community representatives at town hall meeting.

CWC project partners and community representatives at the town hall meeting. (click to enlarge)

At the top of the hour, church bells begin to ring. The mayor says a few closing words and the session disbands almost as quickly as it came together. The townspeople aren’t hurrying off to attend afternoon mass, but rather to partake of another only slightly less sacred Brazillian ritual: watching the national soccer team in action. Today the home team will take the pitch against a scrappy Paraguay club in an important quarterfinal match of the Copa América.

Part II: “Community Associations and Sustainable Development in Rural Brazil

Part III: “Achieving Water Sustainability in Ceará, Brazil

Learn more about the Columbia Water Center’s work in Brazil and across the globe:

Sustainable Water Systems in Rural Brazil

Water Scarcity: A Shared Problem With a World of Solutions

Columbia Water Center: Brazil Research Project

Learn more about water access and management in Brazil:

Wikipedia: Water Supply and Sanitation in Brazil


Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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