Urban Water Insecurity During Drought

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.