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Brazilian government pulls plug on the Million Cistern Project

December 2011

According to a local proverb, bad news arrive arrives fast. So it was with the announcement that Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff will end the popular and effective One Million Cisterns Program in the country’s semi-arid regions. 

 The Brazilian minister of social development announced that it was time to “review” its support to the One Million Cisterns Program (P1MC), a grassroots initiative to build rainwater catchment systems in isolated rural communities. After 12 years and 371,000 cisterns built, the government plans to pull the plug, falling nearly 600,000 cisterns short of its initial goal.   Whereas the P1MC benefits local communities, the Rousseff administration instead wants to fund the imposed (if not illegal) multi-billion dollar Belo Monte dam project or the watershed transposition project. These mega-projects offer benefits to big corporations and take land from indigenous and peasant communities in their way.   From its start, the P1MC was a unique community-driven program. Through the P1MC, families didn’t build their own cisterns only. They participated in a democratic process of selecting the most needed families, breaking the chain of political patronage. They also participated in trainings to build the cistern and learn how to maintain the stored water free of dust and microorganisms.   Dilma Rousseff, however, decided to transfer the control of the program to local politicians. Moreover, the government proposes to use a model of cistern made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The plastic cisterns will be “distributed” to families by contractors. Instead of local communities working together to locate and construct cisterns, the PVC-models are delivered to specific families per the determination of local politicians – a situation likely to reinvigorate the old patronage systems.   Reports indicate that the government will not save money with the PVC cisterns. According to one of the coordinators of the P1MC, the new cistern will cost much more to the public. “They [plastic cisterns] cost twice as much as the pre-molded cisterns of the P1MC. The model we use in the P1MC costs $1,115 (including materials, training and personnel), while the plastic ones cost $2,778.”   People in the Semi-arid Network (ASA), an umbrella organization of more than 750 groups that have created and led the P1MC program until now, expressed their outrage. Raimundo de Andrade, a peasant farmer and president of a local association member of ASA, wrote this poem:   Our struggle dates way back Doing everything to last long Until we transformed what was a desert What was far away is now in our reach Dilma, why have you killed What was going so well.   The P1MC started in 1991.  Tired of political manipulation and government’s lack of response to the problem of water insecurity, families decided to design and implement a water policy that would benefit over five million people. They sought to replicate the successful experience of the pre-molded cistern that rural families helped to developed decades earlier. The cisterns helped to mitigate lack of fresh water during the cyclical droughts in the region and reduced water-borne diseases among children and seniors. But most importantly, it ended the families’ dependence on the “benevolence” of corrupt politicians, who exchanged water supply for votes.    The women used to get up at midnight To fetch water in distant places They worked so much but the water was not enough For everything they needed in the house Everything was incomplete Today they have time to rest Because water is near by Dilma, why have you killed What was going so well.   Dilma Rousseff was elected with more than 60% of the vote from the semi-arid region, where her predecessor Lula da Silva was born. Inconsistent with the “Brasil Sem Miseria” (Brazil Without Misery) Plan and “Agua Para Todos” (Water for All) Program of her administration, Ms. Rousseff’s current water policies seem to ignore the plight and resistance of semi-arid populations and instead bow to the pressure of the coroneis, or oligarch politicians.   Families in the Brazilian semi-arid region (the most populated arid region in the American continent with over 30 million people) had experienced broken promises before. Several presidents, before Dilma Rousseff, have promised a solution to the families’ lack of freshwater, but they never materialized. Misuse of public money in top-down policies of dams and mega-projects have frustrated families for many years.   Unlike the water mega-projects favored by the country’s elite and international financiers, small infrastructure programs such as P1MC generated millions of dollars in the local economy. According to local organizers, the construction of 10,000 cisterns generated over $ 11 million dollars in the local economy through new jobs, purchase of materials, food production, and clean freshwater.   Until now, the Rousseff administration has enjoyed a 70% approval rating. But cutting funds from the P1MC might be political suicide for President Rousseff. While others in her coalition government will not suffer the consequences, Ms. Rousseff may lose a large chunk of her current political capital with the people who elected her.   Roberto Malvezzi from the Land Pastoral Commission, a member of Via Campesina-Brazil, wrote:   “The Christmas gift of the President Dilma to the people in the semi-arid region has been decided: a plastic cistern. The president is an excellent manager, ethical person above any suspicious… but the president decided to donate hundreds of thousands of plastic cisterns to the people. She throws away the many years of hard work of the Semi-Arid Network (ASA)… the people in the semi-arid will never forget that in the Christmas of 2011 they received as a gift from president Dilma Rousseff, a plastic cistern.”  

Malvezzi, along with Raimundo de Andrade and thousands of other Brazilians in the semi-arid region, are hoping that President Rousseff might retract this terrible decision — she still has a couple more days before Christmas.


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