The water quality of the Guaíba River, which runs through Porto Alegre, is classified as poor.
Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS
Investments Are Not Improving Water Quality in Brazil
By Fabiana Frayssinet *
Rivers near Brazil’s most populated cities have poor or very poor water quality, according to a government report, although 71 percent of the country’s water resources are in good condition.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 1 (Tierramérica).- Despite increased investments in sanitation works, the water quality in rivers near large urban centers in Brazil ranges from poor to very poor. Some say the reason is the development model chosen by the South American nation.
The 2011 report on the country’s water resources, released on Jul. 19 by the National Water Agency (ANA), was received with satisfaction by the government: in terms of availability and quality, 90.6 percent of the country’s freshwater sources presented “good” results, according to report coordinator Ney Maranhão.
But viewed from other perspectives, the study does not give cause for optimism, the representatives of a number of water-related environmental and social organizations told Tierramérica.
While efforts and investments have indeed been made, they are still insufficient, believes Edson Aparecido da Silva, coordinator of the National Front for Environmental Sanitation.
The report reveals that during the period studied, 2008-2009, the proportion of “good quality” water rose from 70 to 71 percent, while that of “very poor quality” remained at two percent.
Nevertheless, the proportion of “poor quality” water in rivers, lakes and reservoirs rose from six to seven percent, while that of “fair quality” rose from 12 to 16 percent. In the meantime, “very good” quality water fell from ten to four percent. A glass of pure, crystal clear water can be found in only four percent of the country’s water resources.
The situation is especially bad in rivers near large metropolitan areas, where pollution is attributed primarily to the release of untreated wastewater.
A hundred of these rivers are currently in a state of intensive therapy.
Poor and very poor water quality is found in large cities and state capitals like São Paulo, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in south and southeastern Brazil, and Salvador, in the northeast, as well as mid-sized cities like Campinas (in the southern state of São Paulo) and Juiz de Fora (in the eastern state of Minas Gerais).
An assessment of more than 1,700 points monitored shows that numerous river basins are compromised by the large-scale release of “urban household sewage,” the report states.
In Silva’s opinion, the main cause of groundwater and surface water pollution is the lack of treatment of sewage and industrial waste.
The National Sanitation Information System reports that only 35 percent of the water from the country’s sewers is treated. "In other words, of all the sewer water, more than 60 percent is discharged as is, with no treatment," Silva commented to Tierramérica.
The government highlights that between 2005 and 2009, there was an increase in investment in wastewater treatment, mainly through the sanitation-related component of the country’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC)
"Sanitation policies are showing results in the improvement of water quality, but a great deal of investment is still needed," admitted Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira at a media conference with the foreign press.
The money invested in sanitation works during this period - over 8.35 billion dollars - is slightly less than 60 percent of the amount needed to solve the problem, she added.
Silva recognizes that the government has made a "significant" effort. "Brazil has resumed investment and planning in the sector, but it is not enough to make up for the time lost," he said, stressing that the government should address sanitation as a public health issue.
"It is well known that where this is adequate water in terms of quality and quantity, and adequate collection and treatment of sewage and waste, hospitalization rates for water-related diseases are much lower," he noted.
Solving the problem will require not only increased investment, but also a return to joint planning and resource management involving public and private, provincial and municipal operators.
For his part, Rogério Hohn, national coordinator of the Movement of Dam-Affected People, says that the government report is "confirmation" of what organizations like his have been warning about for a long time.
"The conception of economic growth is what is causing consequences for the environment and therefore the water," Hohn told Tierramérica.
These consequences stem from the big hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure megaprojects that are located precisely in the country’s main river basins, he maintained.
Hohn also highlighted the impact of agrochemical products. Brazil is "the world’s leading consumer of toxic agrochemicals. Every citizen of Brazil consumes an average of 5.2 liters of these toxins," he said.
The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, particularly by the agro-industry sector, contaminates the food and water in the countryside where the food is produced and in the cities where it is consumed, he explained.
Catholic priest Nelito Dornelas, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops advisor to the Brazilian Climate Change Forum, said that what he finds most frightening about the report is that the government "is satisfied with this situation that officially confirms what we have been saying."
Dornelas stressed that Brazil is home to 12 percent of the world’s drinking water supply, and of this, 80 percent is in the Amazon rainforest, where the effects of water pollution in industrialized regions that seem far away, such as those in the south and southeast, are also beginning to be felt.
"All of the rain that falls in the southeast, for example, is formed in the Amazon, and our fear is that toxic rain is already falling too," he commented to Tierramérica.
In Mato Grosso (in central-western Brazil), "contaminated rain is already beginning to affect people’s health," he said.
Dornelas believes that "what is actually polluting the water is the production model that Brazil has chosen, which is neither pure nor correct."
He pointed specifically to the contamination of the Guaraní Aquifer, one of the world’s largest groundwater reservoirs, stretching 850,000 square kilometers across central-southern Brazil, northeastern Argentina, and parts of Uruguay and Paraguay.
A study released in April by the Technological Research Institute of the state of São Paulo and other state agencies warned that illegal dumping of waste and toxic agrochemicals used in sugar cane plantations are threatening the Aquifer.
This is precisely because "it is located in the agro-industry paradise, which is the southeastern region where enormous amounts of agrotoxins are sprayed," said Dornelas.
Reversing this contamination will require a change in the development model, but above all a change in the entire development paradigm, he said.
This paradigm shift, he added, should take into consideration the "seven deadly sins of modern times" defined by Indian independence leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948): "Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principle."
* * IPS correspondent