Brazil's water resources are under threat. Photo: J.Cruz/ABr
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Brazil’s water resources are under threat. Photo: J.Cruz/ABr

Brazil has some of the most plentiful water resources of any country in the world, counting the planet’s largest river and its second-biggest aquifer among its resources. But a combination of public policies and immunity for companies polluting rivers could render these freshwater sources unserviceable in the near future.

The specter of the Mariana dam burst may have brought socioeconomic devastation and environmental damage to its surroundings, but it failed to generate a change in policy. Samarco, the company responsible for the spill, continues to skirt around legal fines by registering continuous appeals.

</p> <p>But serious pollution crises are still impacting rivers all across the country, from accidental mining spills to authorized waste disposal operations. Since the beginning of this year, mining firms Anglo American and Norsk Hydro have sent iron ore <a href="https://brazilian.report/2018/02/27/brazil-latest-environmental-disaster/">spilling</a> into rivers in Minas Gerais and Pará respectively.</p> <h3>Decreasing quality</h3> <p>New research from NGO SOS Atlantic Rainforest Foundation shows that water quality in freshwater rivers has decreased at an alarming rate over the last couple of years. Just 4.1 percent of the collection points evaluated by the study, which looked at 230 rivers in the Atlantic Forest biome, were found to have good quality water.</p> <p>“The results point to the fragility of the environmental condition of the main rivers of the Atlantic Forest and the urgency of including water in Brazil&#8217;s strategic agenda,” said Malu Ribeiro, one of the study’s coordinators and water specialist at the NGO. “Rivers and contaminated waters are a reflection of the absence of environmental sanitation, management, and governance.”</p> <p>But the Atlantic Rainforest is far from the only ecosystem where waters are suffering. In Paraíba, fishermen from Gramame River have leveraged <a href="http://www.jornaldaparaiba.com.br/vida_urbana/no-dia-mundial-da-agua-pescadores-do-rio-gramame-passam-por-necessidades-apos-o-vazamento-de-soda-caustica.html">complaints</a> that fish have disappeared after the local water and waste treatment plant, Cagepa, dumped 40,000 liters of caustic soda into the river. Although the river’s PH reportedly returned to normal one day after the dump, the consequences still saw IBAMA fine Cagepa 12.55 million BRL for such practices.</p> <p><a href="https://brazilian.report/2017/11/09/infrastructure-problems-brazil/">Infrastructure across the country</a> is also causing difficulties in the capture, transportation, and supply of water. According to estimates from the Alternative World Water Forum, sanitation companies lose approximately 40 percent of the water they collect and treat across the country.</p> <div id="attachment_3225" style="width: 2058px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-3225" class="size-full wp-image-3225" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/mariana-dam-tragedy-water-resources-brazil-world-water-day.jpg" alt="mariana dam tragedy water resources brazil world water day" width="2048" height="1365" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/mariana-dam-tragedy-water-resources-brazil-world-water-day.jpg 2048w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/mariana-dam-tragedy-water-resources-brazil-world-water-day-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/mariana-dam-tragedy-water-resources-brazil-world-water-day-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/mariana-dam-tragedy-water-resources-brazil-world-water-day-1024x683.jpg 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 2048px) 100vw, 2048px" /><p id="caption-attachment-3225" class="wp-caption-text">Pollution is damaging water resources in Brazil. Photo: J.Cruz/ABr</p></div> <p>The results of this loss are evident in cities throughout Brazil. Residents in São Luiz, Maranhão, are currently rationing their water. The city has registered record-breaking temperatures of about 40C in recent summers, and rarely dropped below 25C in 2017 – but rainfall, too, has been steady.</p> <p>Water rationing in the city, according to environmental scientist Marcio Váz, is related to distribution rather than drought. “This question of rationing, of neediness, isn’t a problem of an absence of water but of distribution infrastructure,” he <a href="https://oimparcial.com.br/politica/2018/03/em-sao-luis-o-problema-nao-e-escassez-mas-distribuicao/">told</a> Brazilian media.</p> <p>But federal government policies, prioritizing large-scale agriculture’s needs in return for its boost to the country’s economy, may be systematically obstructing water conservation policies.</p> <h3>Agribusiness creating water wars</h3> <p>In small towns across Bahia, Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) finds that yet more conflicts are taking place between subsistence farmers and agribusiness moguls. The NGO recorded a total of 172 water-based conflicts in 2016 – which is almost one every two days, and more than 20 times higher than the total for 2002 when the NGO first began monitoring the issue.</p> <p>Small farmers are increasingly finding that water allocated to agribusiness firms for irrigation practices leaves their own small holdings without sufficient water to grow their own crops. The stress of water supplies, in addition to deforestation and poor management of water resources, means that conflicts over water are becoming ever more frequent.</p> <p>This practice comes back to the allocation of water resources, which is carefully controlled by government bodies and requires several stages of assessment to obtain permissions. But current practices significantly favor agribusiness giants, according to a study from Green Current Environmental Association.</p> <p>The west Bahia town of Correntina has been allocated some 831,588 million liters for irrigation purposes since 2014, to be withdrawn from the Arrojado river. But Iragashi, a Japanese agribusiness group operating in the same area, was allocated 176,620 million liters per day.</p> <p>“Between 2015 and 2018, 80 percent of the water capture grants were for the west of Bahia. The volume authorized for the Igarashi group is infinitely larger than that used by the population of Correntina,” Marcos Rogério dos Santos, the Green Current’s president, told <em>O Globo</em>.</p> <p>“It is estimated that, with 11,000 residents, the city consumes 3 million liters per day. More than 70 percent of the municipality’s population lives along the Arrojado River Valley. It is a fundamental river for family farming.”</p> <p>Unfortunately, these policies and practices are not confined to west Bahia. The Cerrado biome, home to multiple land rights struggles since the 1970s, is also an example. Agribusiness giants, many of whom bought the land in the 60s and 70s when it was far cheaper, have removed native vegetation and favor monoculture farming practices.</p> <p>As a result, aquifers that rely on native plants to hydrate the soil are suffering, resulting in diminished flow in the region’s rivers – which are also drained by irrigation practices necessary to maintain crops that need less arid climates.</p> <p>“We are creating a conflict whose consequences we cannot imagine,” <a href="https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/brasil-tem-um-conflito-por-agua-praticamente-cada-dois-dias-22509460">said</a> Altair Sales, a geologist and anthropology professor at the University of Vale do Rio dos Sinos. “When these rivers all dry up, the owners of the large plantations will move to places with greater water abundance, but the population that is unable to leave will remain. Imagine the social upheaval that may happen.”

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SocietyMar 22, 2018

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BY Ciara Long

Based in Rio de Janeiro, Ciara focuses on covering human rights, culture, and politics.