Brazil’s northeast, with the biggest population of any arid region in the world, is home to many of the more than 10 million Brazilians who live without regular access to clean and safe drinking water. For years the people of the region struggled to survive with no help from national public policy makers. Now policy makers are pursuing two very different approaches to the problem of the northeast’s water insecurity: a community driven, grassroots public policy that supports building low-cost cisterns to provide water to the families who need it most, and a top-down mega-project to redirect the São Francisco River through a massive series of dams and canals.
Polo Sindical, an association of rural unions and a Grassroots International partner based in the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Bahia, is a key part of the movement that was instrumental in building the grassroots model and struggling to make sure that the mega-project does not have catastrophic results for the region’s citizens.
Polo emerged in 1979 to protest the construction of the Itaparica Dam, a hydro-electric dam in the mid-course region of the São Francisco River. When the dam displaced thousands of peasants and small-scale farmers, bringing land and water rights became top priorities for Polo. One of their early victories was the resettlement of the affected families.
The idea for the cistern project was born in the 1980s, when Manuel Apolônio de Carvalho, a worker from the northeast, migrated to São Paulo to find work. He realized that the construction techniques he learned to build swimming pools for the wealthy could also be used to capture rainwater for the poor. He returned to the northeast and began collaborating with local groups like Polo to perfect the system using the principles of agro-ecology. Each cistern can capture enough water in a few rainy months to provide water for an average household of 5-6 people for the rest of the year.
In addition to building cisterns with their own resources, the groups organized and lobbied and now the federal government is helping to finance cistern production. What began as a grassroots self-help movement has become a national policy–embodied in the Million Cistern Project–that will provide drinking water to 5 million people.
Polo Sindical and its affiliated organizations are members of a larger network called Articulação no Semi-Árido (ASA), or in English the Semi-Arid Network. ASA includes more than 800 organizations. As one of the 45 management units of ASA, as of 2005 Polo Sindical has overseen the construction 1,379 cisterns benefiting 7,049 people. In all, more than 100,000 cisterns were built between 2001 and 2005 (including 77,000 that were financed by the Brazilian government).
While cisterns provide life-giving water to thousands of homes, some would prefer to develop water resources on a grander scale. The Lula government is the latest in a series to propose a monumental reconfiguration of the landscape of the northeast by re-distributing the water of the São Francisco River. Political leaders believe that the plan will transform the dry northeast into a productive agricultural region, and re-cast the political landscape in favor of whichever party is able to succeed in pushing the plan through.
Brazil’s social movements aren’t so sure about the supposed benefits of the plan. Over the years, similar projects around the world have had disastrous results, from the toxic wasteland left by the evaporation of the Aral Sea, to the catastrophic flooding of the canal-ized Mississippi. Several points in the São Francisco project are troubling: environmental impacts may cost the sustainability of poor people’s livelihoods; the claim that 12 million people will have access to water seems wildly exaggerated; irrigation projects along the way will displace hundreds or thousands of people to make room for large agribusinesses; and last but not least, the control over water resources will remain in the hands of ruling local political groups, not in the hands of families of communities. The proponents of the plan in the government have not responded properly to these concerns.
Social movements are working on different fronts to fight these potentially disastrous top-down policies. Among other strategies, they are using legal procedures to stop the São Francisco transposition project.
Through the support of Grassroots International, Polo has built cisterns in rural households in Pernambuco and the neighboring state of Bahia, organized workshops about water management in dry areas and is pioneering the development of new technology like underground dams that trap sub-surface water in seasonal streams. “With Grassroots’ help, we are developing new agro-ecological solutions,” said Ademar Silva, one of the directors of Polo Sindical. With the help of a dedicated movement, Polo is transforming the political and economic landscape of the Northeast from the grassroots.