Household Water Insecurity in Urban Brazil

Households in the urban periphery access water through complex systems of formal and informal water technologies, practices, institutions, and organizational forms. While many countries have increased access to piped water system, governments and utilities still remain limited in their capacity to build infrastructure to meet demand in growing urban and peri-urban areas.  But even in areas that have experienced increases in network water provision, recent studies have examined the paradoxical persistence of unregulated water arrangements and practices.  This project began June 1, 2016 and is funded by the National Science Foundation.  Continued engagement with these topics developed as a Fulbright Scholar in Spring 2017.


But current research on urban water provision does not explicitly evaluate how coexistence or hybrid water-provisioning systems influence household water security, defined as adequate, affordable and reliable water for a healthy life.  The emergence of regulated and unregulated water technologies, practices, and institutions that configure coexistence begs the question of its efficacy for human development and water security:

  • Does system coexistence increase or decrease household water security?
  • What particular configurations of formal and informal technologies and practices enhance or reduce household water security?
  • How do different hybrid water-provisioning systems compare in terms of household water security?

Answers to these questions will provide meaningful insights as to the benefits and limitations of alternative water-provisioning systems, informing development interventions and investments. Moreover, such answers will also provide an empirical basis to further evaluate the model of centralized, piped water networks as the modern ideal for securing domestic water provision. Therefore, my major research goal is to evaluate hybrid water-provisioning systems in terms of household water security


This project will be conducted in urban Ceará, Brazil, where overall piped water to urban residents has increased but whose populace also relies on alternative modes of water delivery.  Urban areas in Ceará, like many others in the Global South, reflect typical regulated and non-regulated water provisioning systems that are intertwined across multiple scales.

Currently we are working in two communities in the Metropolitan Region of Fortaleza: Pecem, an industrializing special economic zone and rapidly urbanizing area, and Sabiaguaba, an urban neighborhood on the coast.  We are working closely with local collaborators, community organizations, and the geography department at the Federal University of Ceará, where I am a Visiting Professor. We are conducing the household water insecurity survey — with 257 completed in Pecem, and ongoing survey administration in Sabiaguaba.  Check out the UFC Team Instagram @projetoagua2018 and @labocartufc for updates.

One aspect of urban water provisioning is the central role of the formal and informal water tankers (os carros-pipas).  Even if you can’t understand Portuguese, the images speak for themselves. A water tanker delivery in a bairro in Sobral (CE), a city of over 200,000 people (YouTube below). Apparently households have been struggling for water for at least three weeks, if not more.

Mixed Methods — Research Approach

The project employs a mix of qualitative (ethnographic observation; open-ended interviews), participatory (photovoice), and quantitative (HWS survey) methods.  Following my previous water security project, I adopt a critical mixed-methods approach with careful consideration of what Tim Forsyth calls “critical environmental epistemology” (CEE). I employ standard qualitative methods, such as semi-structured and open-ended interviews, and novel participatory approaches (“photovoice”), to inform the refinement and interpretation of quantitative household water security metric. Quantification and model building prevent, as Moss notes, “the individualization of experiences” where one person’s account of a singular act or experience is not devalued…rather quantification can validate and place the individual experiences in a larger context of social relations (1995, 447).