Rainwater cistern in the remote semi-arid region of north-east Brazil. Credit: Gilvan Barreto/Oxfam
Rainwater cistern in the remote semi-arid region of north-east Brazil

Brazil: Bringing life to the desert

“Before we built the tank, I had to walk to the stream and carry heavy buckets of water on my head”

North-eastern Brazil is the most densely populated, semi-arid region in the world. Around 11 million people do not have a permanent supply of clean drinking water. Most people have to walk long distances in search of muddy water holes that have been contaminated by animals.

Dirty water

Ana Patricia is 15 years old, this is her experience. “When I get up in the morning, the first thing I have to do is fetch water from the stream.

“The water is dirty and is full of manganese, but it’s all we have at the moment. I have to use it to wash and then I get ready for school.

“Sometimes, when we have had no other water, I have been forced to drink from the stream. It tastes bad, but when you have no choice and you are thirsty what else can you do?”

Long-term solutions

One million cisterns

Diaconia is one of Oxfam’s partner organisations involved in the ‘One Million Cisterns’ project, helping communities to build concrete storage tanks that collect the torrential rain that falls during the short rainy season.

Each cistern holds 16,000 litres and can supply a family of five with enough water for drinking, washing, and cooking for the rest of the year.

The ‘One Million Cisterns’ project for the first time brings together a large number of regional and national Brazilian non-government organisations (NGOs), international NGOs and the Brazilian Government.

Support to communities

Diaconia provides training, financial and technical support. It also gives advice on increasing crop variety and yields as this becomes possible with an improved water supply.

Community involvement is essential in their work, with local people receiving training to build cisterns for themselves. Each family receiving a cistern is expected to dig the foundations and provide sand for the building.

Community groups meet monthly with people from Diaconia to discuss the water supply problems and to share ideas for getting local government funding and support for improving water supplies in their area.

A new world of possibilities

Diaconia supplied Josefa’s family with all the material to build a cistern. They also helped with an irrigation system and gave advice on crops.

“When we got involved with Diaconia, they opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Diaconia helped us with our water supply. They gave us more seeds so that we grow a bigger variety of fruit and vegetables and they showed us how to nurture them.

“Before we built the tank, I had to walk to the stream and carry heavy buckets of water on my head. It was a really slow and laborious process.

“Now we have enough food to keep our family healthy and we are selling some of our produce to other people in the community.

“The money we earn allows us to buy the things we need to stay healthy and to invest in our children’s future.

“We can buy what we can’t grow – coffee, sugar, oil, a little meat. When the children are sick, we can afford to buy medicines. And we can buy textbooks, notebooks, and other school equipment. Life is definitely easier.”