Brazil could need 40 years to meet sanitation goals

. Jan 07, 2021
A bathroom without proper sanitation in small Amazon village. A bathroom without proper sanitation in small Amazon village. Photo: LMspencer/Shutterstock

While it has been a recurring topic on The Brazilian Report, the magnitude of Brazil’s sanitation gap is still hard to fathom for many foreign observers. In the country’s urban areas, 16.3 percent of the population still had no access to clean water in 2019, while an astonishing 45.9 percent live without sanitary sewage.

The World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that basic sanitation is essential for health promotion, as several diseases may be allowed to proliferate in the absence of these services. Brazil knows the risks of inadequate sanitation all too well, as the lack of treated water and sewage is a historical problem in the country that is far from being solved.

</p> <p>In 2019, around 2.6 million Brazilians living in urban centers had their homes connected to the sewage network. While this represented a 2.5 percent increase on the previous year, progress remains timid.</p> <p>Official data on Brazil&#8217;s sanitation coverage comes from the National System of Sanitation Information (SNIS), linked to the Regional Development Ministry. SNIS coordinator Luiz Antônio Pazos admits that access to treated water and sewage is still &#8220;very low.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;We&#8217;ve only reached a little over half of the population,&#8221; he says, stressing that, when people living outside of urban centers are factored into the equation, the overall coverage of sewage services falls to just 54 percent of the Brazilian population.</p> <h2>Another 40 years to meet sanitation goals</h2> <p>Judging by the current pace of expansion, Brazil will take another 40 years to reach the 2033 coverage goals laid down in last year&#8217;s <a href="">new sanitation legal framework</a>. The law would require clean water to reach 99 percent of the population and sewage services to 90 percent. “The data reinforces the necessity of the new law. Our expectation is that we will only feel the effects of the new legal framework on official data as of 2022,&#8221; says Edison Carlos, from basic sanitation NGO <a href="">Instituto Trata Brasil</a>.</p> <p>This delay factors in 2020&#8217;s auctions of sanitation services in the states of Mato Grosso and Espírito Santo, and the state capitals of Maceió and Porto Alegre. The expectation is that the states of Acre, Alagoas, and <a href="">Rio de Janeiro</a> will hold their own public sales this year. In 2022, the deadline runs out for sanitation utility companies to prove their capacity to solve infrastructure bottlenecks.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Only half of sewage is treated</h2> <p>Beyond simple coverage of sewage services, another major issue is the treatment given to the waste that is effectively generated and collected. Only 49 percent of sewage is treated, and just 78.5 percent of that total is treated in the appropriate manner.&nbsp;</p> <p>“This is a huge problem that will rebound to the Environment Ministry. If you collect [waste], don&#8217;t treat it, and end up with the sewage coming back again. In other words, we are deteriorating our bodies of water and the quality of our seas. That is why we say that dealing with sanitation is the biggest environmental project we can undertake in this country,&#8221; says Mr. Pazos.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1004479"><script src=""></script></div> <p>As not all of Brazil&#8217;s 5,570 municipalities disclose comprehensive data to the SNIS, results concerning the collection and treatment of sewage may diverge from the national scenario. This caveat also applies to other actions analyzed by the system, including the treatment of water, transfer of solid waste, and rainwater management in cities.</p> <p>To increase the reliability of the data, the Regional Development Ministry is seeking to form a partnership with the National Health Foundation (Funasa) — linked to the Health Ministry — to obtain information from cities which have yet to provide data to SNIS. Furthermore, according to national sanitation secretary Pedro Ronald Maranhão, an independent audit will be hired to assess the results collected and attest to their credibility.</p> <p>“We are still in medieval times with regard to sanitation,&#8221; says Mr. Maranhão, adding that the field is seen as &#8220;the ugly duckling of the infrastructure area.&#8221; The secretary stressed the importance of diagnosing the sector&#8217;s bottlenecks and said that studies show every BRL 1 invested in basic sanitation saves BRL 4 in health spending.</p> <h2>Wasted water</h2> <p>In a country where entire cities have no access to treated sewage, Brazil also suffers from significant waste of safe drinking water. According to Instituto Trata Brasil, Brazil has backslid 13 years in this area. Data from the SNIS showed that water waste hit 59.3 percent in 2019 — a level that the country had not reached since 2007.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The increase in losses is a classic indication of inefficiency. We need to correct old structures to reduce fraud. This backslide of 13 years is a symptom of lack of investment in sanitation,&#8221; says the institute&#8217;s president Edison Carlos.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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