Harvesting rain north-east Brazil

sheila_lenehan1By Sister Sheila Lenehan

In Capim Grosso, a semi-desert area, we usually get heavy rains in December and January and milder ones in July and August in a good year. But we haven't had a good year now for some time.

Outside the urban areas there is no public water supply. Families who live in the rural areas have to provide their own. This is not an area where it is possible to dig wells and artesian wells are very costly even if the land were suitable. So families dig out a shallow basin-shaped hole and when it rains the water gathers there.

This water is shared with the animals and also used for washing clothes and bathing. While this is great for community-building it not good for one's health. Here the children, especially, suffer from chronic diarrhoea and parasitic infestations. This leaves them under-nourished and anaemic. The small resources of the family are spent buying medicines instead of food.

In 2001 we began to work with the local people to try to improve the situation. Together we started to build cisterns to collect the rainwater from the roofs of the houses. This is clean water and good to drink.

A family of five needs 16,000 litres just for drinking and cooking for eight months and so the cistern has to be large enough to hold this amount. Hopefully it will rain during the other four months.

The process for acquiring a cistern is a community affair. They hold a meeting and together decide who should get priority: families with small children, sick or handicapped members, or those who live furthest from the water tank. Then they get together to dig the hole, approximately twelve feet in diameter and six feet deep. Next comes the actual construction of the cistern. The family provide the labourer to help the builder and feed him. If necessary he sleeps in their house.

There is a lot of community cooperation during this process. When all the cisterns are built for an area there is a community meeting and the families undertake to pay back half the cost of their cistern over two or three years. This means more families can have a cistern later on. There is also a training course for the families on how to manage their cistern and to economise on the use of water.

It is often very difficult for the families to find the money so then we organise another course for them to learn a new skill, which will help them to earn some pin money. Sometimes it is making biscuits, painting on cloth to make tea towels or tablecloths, or crochet work to sell locally.

brazil_harvesting_cassava1 brazil_water_tank_2008a

Harvesting cassava is labour intensive for the individual.
Harvesting the rain requires the effort of the whole community.

Over the last four years we have had a campaign to get a law passed in our town which would oblige the local government authority to work on improving the water supply both for the urban and rural areas.

We worked with the people. Workshops were held and eventually we wrote out the law, as we thought it should be, with the help of a lawyer. We then collected signatures and sent all to the Mayor and Council for approval. When it was to be discussed at a Council meeting we gathered the people to be present. It was finally signed into law on 23 September 2008, after four years of effort.