Monthly Archives: August 2016

Water insecurity during drought

Calamitous drought in the Brazilian Sertão (Backlands) inspired songs, poetry, and oral traditions that infuse culture and society.  Migrants leaving the desiccated soil populate the regions cities, driving metropolitan populations since the 1970s.  Reading the stories is one thing.  Visiting the region, which faces a five-year drought, is an entirely different experience. Dried reservoirs are scattered across the landscape, with many others on the brink of collapse. acudes

Small and medium-sized cities struggle to find secure sources of water.  Currently organic pollution degrades water drawn from existing sources, which further reduces residents’ confidence in domestic water provision.  Drilling groundwater has exploded during the past two years, as a strategy to mitigate the lack of surface water.  Some cities have provided its urban population with well water, with some as desalinated, depending on local resources.

The micro-politics of water provision confirms the complex strategies between political leaders, technicians, and local communities.  Geologic, social different, and political variables determine location and technological investments in these small and medium-sized cities.

Public taps offer one mechanism for residents to access domestic water. Yet two-hour lines, however self-regulated by water users, do not preclude the informal privatization through water resale. Nor does public provision provide water users with adequate and safe containers to transport water to homes. Reused lubricant and agro-toxics containers, paint buckets, and old two-litre soda bottles are more common than the more expensive 20-litre water bottle.

Questions remain as to the quality and capacity of transportation, gender divisions, and impacts of this provisioning system on public health. But without a doubt, there is a daily, grinding struggle for water in towns and cities in Brazil’s Northeast.

Photos from the Field

Here are a few photos from my research trip to Ceará.  My time there quickly passed by as my colleagues scheduled many activities and meetings almost every day of the trip — including unsuccessful visits to register my visa! Leave that for October.  I forgot about the Brazilian bureaucracy — Brazil is not for beginners, but regardless, I am so happy to be back working there. 

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Typical reused container for water transport and storage.

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….And more containers (this was used for lubricants).

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Striking gender division of labor: Women would collect water in the early morning while men waited two hours during the afternoon to fill their containers. In another town, the lines were so long people would hire the local “papudhino” (drunk) to wait in line for them.

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In some places, others would bring between 10 and 30 containers to fill, and then resell at the periphery of the urban area.  This was not allowed officially, but it has lead to implied violence if someone were to stop it. 

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One small town in the northern region of Ceará. Rural residents would come to the town for well water (“agua doce”)

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Public taps for well water that was not processed by desalination.

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County-owned water tanker (“carro-pipa”) filling tank directly from the bare-bones water processing plant. He is on his eight trip to the rural areas to fill cisterns with water. In this town, no “carro-pipa” served the urban residents, only rural

Urban Water Insecurity During Drought

Forquilha

Forquilha Reservoir at 4% capacity (August 2016)

Calamitous drought in the Brazilian Sertão (Backlands) inspired songs, poetry, and oral traditions that infuse culture and society.  Migrants leaving the desiccated soil populate the regions cities, driving metropolitan populations since the 1970s.  Reading the stories is one thing.  Visiting the region, which faces a five-year drought, is an entirely different experience. Dried reservoirs are scattered across the landscape, with many others on the brink of collapse.

Small and medium-sized cities struggle to find secure sources of water.  Currently organic pollution degrades water drawn from existing sources, which further reduces residents’ confidence in domestic water provision.  Drilling groundwater has exploded during the past two years, as a strategy to mitigate the lack of surface water.  Some cities provide urban populations with well water, and limited desalinated options, depending on local resources.  The micro-politics of water provision confirms the complex strategies among political leaders, technicians, and local communities.  Geologic, social differences, and political variables determine location and technological investments in smaller cities.

Public taps offer one mechanism for residents to access domestic water. Yet two-hour lines, however self-regulated by water users, do not preclude the informal privatization through water resale. Nor does public provision provide water users with adequate and safe containers to transport water to homes. Reused lubricant and agro-toxics containers, paint buckets, and old two-litre soda bottles are more common than the more expensive 20-litre water bottle. Questions remain as to the quality and capacity of transportation, gender divisions, and impacts of this provisioning system on public health. But without a doubt, there is a daily, grinding struggle for water in towns and cities in Brazil’s Northeast.

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Building Bridges in Fortaleza

Fortaleza, which is located on the Atlantic Coast, offers the opportunity to study water insecurity in Latin America. Unlike the mega-cities like Rio, Fortaleza and the smaller urban areas in the Northeast represent the everyday life far from the glow of Olympic glory or global Carnival. The residents, many of whom are immigrants or from immigrant families, escaping the parched interior, known as the Sertão.  The drought, rather than employment and opportunity, drives many to the city’s  bairros and favelas.  Poor public services and precarious infrastructure also accompany new forms social action and civic engagement in the most surprising places.


I met with students and colleagues at the Universidade Federal do Ceará on the first day, and since then we have been animated by the possibilities of working on different projects, including urban water provision and household water insecurity. My first goal is to begin the process of identifying communities — this can be tricky as the brute reality of Brazilian cities requires careful consideration of safety. But there are many opportunities and this trip is the first step to identify the case communities. I will have this completed during October’s trip. At that time, I will also provide training in Photovoice, research ethics, and survey implemention to studen research assistants.


Next year I will be here on Fulbright Scholarship, and we are already planning the course I will teach and the lectures to prepare for the department at large. My course will be “Justiça Ambiental” with lectures on water security and research methods.


I plan to travel across the North and Northeast. In March, I will visit Bragança in Pará to co-advise a PhD student on an urban water security and climate change project. In addition, the social cartography group works with communities in the Sertão on the border with Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, where concerns about water security have become a priority as new agro-businesses are moving into the region.