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Achieving Water Sustainability in Ceará, Brazil

This is the final piece in a three-part series on the Columbia Water Center’s project to design sustainable water systems in Ceará, a state in Brazil’s semi-arid northeast.

As I near the end of my journey through Ceará, it’s clear that achieving water sustainability here will involve more than just building pipes, pumps and water towers. It will require significant changes in the ways water is monitored, distributed and used throughout the state. And it will require a kind of evolution in the institutions, practices and systems that have long contributed to the inefficient and unequal use of water throughout the region.

On the way back to Fortaleza, we decide to visit the site of a government-sponsored agricultural project located in the town of Morada Nova. Eventually we are able to locate the headquarters of the operation and track down José Odilon Brum Filho, the executive manager of AUDIPIMN, the organization that manages the water supply inside the project’s perimeter. Filho explains that this site was built by the government in the late 1960s as part of a sweeping agricultural reform initiative. Today it is run as a cooperative: the government leases land to a collection of farmers and small businesses, who mostly sell their crops in the region. Containing approximately 950 plots and directly or indirectly employing about 7,000 people in the area, it is a large-scale undertaking, and one that requires a steady flow of water for irrigation.

Video: Water Management Challenges in an Agricultural Cooperative

Filho must overcome many hurdles to ensure there is an adequate supply of water available throughout the co-op. By today’s standards, the irrigation infrastructure he oversees is antiquated and inefficient, and, for one reason or another, the government seems to have little interest in modernizing it. He also has scarce information on how water is used – or misused – on croplands, and there is little he can do to prevent leaseholders from overwatering or otherwise wasting resources. Finally, a combination of silty soil and market demand results in the bulk of producers opting to grow rice, a water-intensive crop that is not well-suited to the area.

However, Filho acknowledges that some progress has been made. He notes that the new courses being offered at the Federal University in Fortaleza by hydrologists like Francisco de Assis de Souza Filho, the director of the Columbia Water Center’s Brazil office, have empowered both water supervisors and users with better resource management skills. Informed by Assis’s research on climate variability, such training is also helping ensure that the annual assessment of how much water to release from Ceará’s basins is accurate. Using scientific data to improve this decision making process–which involves everyone from laypeople to state agency officials–helps ensure that reservoirs don’t go dry during periods of suspected drought. Alternatively, such knowledge can correct over-cautious estimates, resulting in more water being released throughout the network of agricultural, industrial and residential consumers. Having more water available can make all the difference to Filho’s association as well as the farmers and small businesses that rely on it.

A rice field at the government-sponsored agricultural cooperative in Morada Nova, Brazil
A rice field at the government-sponsored agricultural cooperative in Morada Nova, Brazil

Assis points out that conservation techniques could also be used to help prevent water scarcity in Morada Nova. For instance, tensiometers could be used to monitor the amount of moisture in the soil and prevent overwatering, a strategy the CWC has utilized successfully in agricultural areas in India. And experimenting with sustainable agricultural techniques or crops better suited to local conditions could lead to the development of more efficient farming practices without dimished yields or negative economic or environmental consequences. Even small improvements in the ability to monitor and measure water use could have big impacts, and there are similar agricultural developments in Ceará that could potentially benefit from techniques that prove effective.

Improved water allocation, forecasting and conservation may hold much promise for mitigating the effects of water scarcity in northeast Brazil. But the problem of providing sustainable water access to rural populations today still remains. According to engineer Francisco Osny Enéas da Silva, the key to the success of the Columbia Water Center’s project was avoiding a “one size fits all” philosophy and instead using a multidisciplinary team to craft solutions adapted to the topography, infrastructure, and social capital of each community.

Video: Designing Sustainable Water Systems in Rural Brazil

The Water Center team captured its innovative approach in a unique document called The Municipal Water Plan, or PAM. The PAM synthesizes the project’s experience and expertise into a blueprint for designing sustainable water systems in other municipalities. The PAM’s methodology is based on scientific research, adaptive planning, community participation and sustainable technologies, and it is meant to be both replicable and scalable. It could in theory be used to design intelligent water systems in communites across the entire northeast.

The municipal water plan is an important legacy of the CWC’s work in Milhã, and it’s already having an impact on how sustainable development is approached in Ceará. José Nelson Martins de Sousa, Ceará’s secretary of agriculture, has embraced the PAM process as a key component of the state’s continuing water development plan. The plan was also among the criteria submitted to the World Bank earlier this year as part of Ceará’s bid to secure $50 million in water development funding.

According to professor Assis, the only ingredients necessary to begin scaling up the municipal water plan are political will and financial support. Although the state is on board, his colleague Osny feels the government alone cannot achieve universal water access across Ceará, especially in small rural communities. The Water Center’s pilot project may offer a model for addressing this problem, as well: the public-private partnership. One such partnership is currently being formed to implement a PAM in another municipality, and 24 new water plans are set to be conducted over the next year as new agreements are cemented and funding becomes available.

A man walks his bicycle at dusk along the road to Milhã, Brazil
A man walks his bicycle at dusk along the road to Milhã, Brazil

Providing universal water access in Ceará poses a monumental challenge. But the Columbia Water Center’s collaborative project in Milhã has proven that dramatic change is possible. For the first time there is a clear path to achieve water sustainability in the sertão, and it’s conceivable that Ceará’s long history of hardship brought on by water scarcity could one day be little more than a memory.

Part II: “Community Associations and Sustainable Development in Rural Brazil

Part I: “Bringing Water to Rural Communities in Brazil

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks. Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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De Gaspe Beaubien Foundation
12 years ago

Your mission is in harmony with ours. With our partners like, we are trying to raise awareness on water issues in our world, its scarcity and its overconsumption. Your projects are fascinating and we would very much to work with you in encouraging our community about the projects that are being rolled out to address this water issue and to gather as many people as possible to support these projects. We support your work and also hope that we can work together on this matter.

We are behind you 100%.