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Water-rich country at risk
José Pedro Martins
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Population growth and contamination continue in the areas with the least water resources.

Piauí, one of the Brazilian states with the lowest social indicators, is also the most severely affected by the devastating drought in the country, above all in the northeastern region.

As of Oct. 5, 147 of the 223 municipalities in Piauí were in a state of emergency, because the drought was so concentrated in this region of Brazil.

One of the effects of the drought has been that every year, between 20,000 and 30,000 residents in Piauí are obligated to leave the state to look for work and better adequate living conditions in other parts of the country.

Nevertheless, thousands of kilometers from Piauí, the situation is not much different. The state of São Paulo, the richest state of Brazil — home to 30 percent of the national wealth — has also suffered from a severe drought that in some regions totaled 70 rainless days by mid-October of this year.

One of the worst effects of the drought was that public water service was interrupted or under threat in various municipalities of the state in 2007, something that had already happened in previous years.

The reservoirs of the Cantareira System, which provide water for half of the metropolitan region of São Paulo — 9 million of 18 million residents — and dozens of municipalities along the banks of the Piracicaba, Capivari and Jundiaí rivers, in the interior of the state, the second richest region of Brazil, in mid-October were at only 30 percent of their capacities, when during the same period last year, they were at 45-percent capacity.

Scientists and nongovernmental organizations have no doubts that this severe drought is tied to global warming, a phenomenon that has worsened the water crisis and has ravaged Brazil, creating increasingly damaging scenarios in many parts of the country.

Definitively, something is very wrong with water in this water-rich country.

Asymmetric distribution
Brazil has vast water resources — 12.5 percent of the world’s fresh water. Also, Brazil is home to the most part of the Guaraní Aquifer — shared with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay — one of the largest underground water reserves in the world.

But water is very poorly distributed in Brazil compared with the historic pattern of population’s occupation. More than 80 percent of the country’s water is in the Amazonian region, where only 10 percent of Brazilians live, close to 20 million people.

The state of São Paulo, however, where almost 20 percent of the population lives — 40 million people — is home to just 2 percent of the country’s water.

Due to the fact that most of the population lives in larges cities, mainly São Paulo and others in the south and southeastern parts of the country — as well as climatic factors, some parts of the country suffer from chronic water shortages and contamination, and the problem is only getting worse.

This situation has prompted important social movements to push for new legislation over Brazil’s water supply management.
Unified movement.

An important water defense movement began in the city of Piracicaba, in the interior of São Paulo. The Piracicaba River, and its basin, cuts in the city in half. The population lives off of that river.

Cultural and religious celebrations are centered around the river itself, such as the Festival of the Divine, a Catholic celebration.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Piracicaba River suffered the worst period of contamination from industrial and urban waste along the riverbank in its documented history. The intense use of water and growing contamination caused the disappearance of some fish species from the river.

The Piracicaba population reacted, and gave birth to one of the strongest water defense movements in Brazil.

Some members formed the Inter-Municipal Association of the Piracicaba and Capivari River Basins in 1989 to promote decontamination and rational use and protection of these important waters.

The movement was the beginning of a major discussion that led to a law on the water resources of the São Paulo state.

“Piracicaba and the region’s participation was fundamental to the promotion of the law and the national debate on the need to protect our waters,” said director of the National Waters Association, José Machado, who had also served as mayor of Piracicaba and was one of the creators of the consortium.

Citizen’s participation
The debate over water legislation intensified during the 1990s on a national level. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. In 1991, in São Paulo, the state law on water resources took effect.

Another law outlining the National Water Resource Policy took effect in 1997. This law established important changes to water management in Brazil in order to protect waters and prevent the crisis from getting any worse.

In fact, the main objective of the national policy in the Water Law is “to ensure that current and future generations have the necessary water availability with quality patterns appropriate for each type of use.”

Another new element is the guarantee of broad participation by society in the decision-making processes about water, through citizens’ committees. This decentralized approach considers water basins as specific manageable units. The future of the waters in each basin is defined through this Basin’s Committee.

“The Basins Committee is a sort of water parliament, a way to guarantee participation by society, without having one sector dominate over another.

The government, companies, water users all have equal weight,” said federal Dep. Antônio Carlos de Mendes Thame, of the Brazilian Social Democratic party, and the first president of the basin committee in the state of São Paulo, in charge of the Piracicaba, Capivari and Jundiaí river basins.

This committee was founded in 1993 and its inauguration was marked with a call to defend water resources.

A step forward in the management of water resources in Brazil was the creation in 2000 of the National Waters Association, which is responsible for the regular use of national waters.

These are the waters related to the rivers that cross two or more Brazilian states. Other states also began to charge for the use of water under the legislation as a way to guarantee rational water use and avoiding squandering.

The Association is pushing for the treatment of urban waste, one of the principal causes of water contamination in Brazil. Less than 40 percent of the waste water in cities here is treated before being dumped in rivers.

Church in defense of water
But the protection of water in Brazil has not only advanced in legal and managerial terms. The social conscience has advanced greatly and the Catholic Church has contributed as well.

The Pastoral Land Commission, which is dedicated to land reform and social justice in rural Brazil, has pushed for the guarantee of high-quality water for all Brazilians.

Water has become a major part of its campaigns for the last eight years. In 2001, in the First Pastoral Land Commission Congress, the final document states: “Water, a natural and inalienable right.

Being that water is a constituent part of the human being, of life as a whole and of the entire environment, it is a natural right, patrimony of humanity, divinely granted — not a human work. So it cannot be reduced to merchandise or a personal good.

And no human being can have the power to deprive any human being of this good that is essential for life.”

In the Pastoral Land Commission’s annual report on rural conflict that documents murders, evictions, and other violence, water conflicts are now included.

Last year’s report said that 36 percent of the conflicts registered were associated with dams and hydroelectric plans, and 49 percent were related to contamination or the destruction of bodies of water.

The states with the highest number of conflicts are Paraná (6), Minas Gerais (5) and Mato Grosso do Sul and Tocantins (4 a piece). The commission identified conflicts in 20 of the 23 Brazilian states.

In 2004, the Church launched the Fraternity Campaign of “Water: Source of Life.” Various levels of the Catholic Church hierarchy and Catholic communities throughout Brazil took time to discuss the issue, to bring to light the need to preserve water, which is ever more scarce and inaccessible for a good part of the Brazilian population. This year’s campaign focused on the Amazon.

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