The 8th International Forum on Water will be held in Brasilia later this month (March 2018). According to their website, the forum will bring together the principal specialists, managers and organisations in the world, involved with the question of water. Many social organisations and NGO’s have denounced the event, claiming that it is closed door¹ and undemocratic, nothing more than a cover for multinational companies seeking to close billion-dollar deals with governments, for the privatisation and commercialisation of water supplies and services. It is sponsored by both Coca-cola and Nestle, amongst others.
In response, and running concurrently at another location in Brasilia, will be the Forum Alternativa Mundial da Água (Alternative World Forum of Water), known as FAMA. This alternative forum is billed (on their website) as an International event which intends to unite worldwide organisations and social movements, fighting in defence of water as an elementary right to life. This Forum aims to unify the fight against the big corporations’ attempt to turn water into a commodity, privatising the reserves and natural sources of water, trying to make this right in an unreachable resource for many populations, which thereby suffer social exclusion, poverty and find themselves involved in conflicts and wars of all kinds.
I was part of a small group from Prainha who attended the forum, organised by the Ceará branch of FAMA, in Fortaleza at the end of February.
The forum was held in the Legislative Assembly of Ceará. A large modern building with curved lines and mirrored plates on the outside walls.
Inside the foyer was all dark granite and concrete but then we turned down a long corridor, which had a completely different feel as light streamed through the unusual roof structure. There were some interesting art pieces too.
Communities from all over Ceará were represented, as well as NGO’s, Trade Union leaders, a Doctor of Physical Geography from the University of Barcelona and other professionals.
As an introduction to the day, we were informed that the fight for water is social and political. It usually involves the rural (often poor) population in conflict with private companies, or their own governments. The needs of city dwellers or big business are favoured over the traditional water rights of rural communities by governments, who often use the exaggerated forecast employment claims of mining companies, monocultures, large-scale cattle farms and aquaculture businesses, as a reason to support their water demands over those of a local population.
The poor are disproportionately affected and according to current estimates, thirty-four million Brazilians do not have access to water.
Ceará is badly affected by drought. Even though we are currently in the rainy season and have had some incredible rains, now in March when we would expect the heaviest rains, the skies have cleared once more. Of the approximately 154 official reservoirs in Ceará, only 3 are at capacity, 4 are at around 90% and 4 are around 80% but the vast majority (I counted around 81 on Ceará’s government’s hydro page) are between 0 and 9% capacity, or in other words, pretty much empty².
Many of the communities represented at the Forum were already suffering the effects of the severe drought (which I have previously written about here). Now too, they spoke of water being polluted by mining or industrial waste. Being denied access to traditional sources of water, now fenced off and in private hands, or having the source of their water blocked or diverted by dams. For communities all over the State, the only source of water is from tankers, known here as Carros-Pipa. Typically amounting to a barrel or two per household, once a month or less, this water is often not fit for human consumption, as was exposed by a TV report here a few years ago.
The following are just a few examples of the 460 known water conflicts in Ceará.
A group of communities fighting against a Uranium and Phosphate mine. The communities in the area are receiving one water truck per month but an NGO identified 150 communities that do not appear on the official maps and therefore receive no water delivery whatsoever. Contrast that with the mining company who receive water at the rate of 140 truckloads per minute!
Many people who lived in the area of the mine were moved off their land with a promise of compensation. The majority are still waiting for the payment, they have nowhere to live and no money to go elsewhere.
Another community told how runoff from an Iron ore mine has contaminated their water, making it undrinkable and another community told of fighting air and water pollution caused by a cement company. In the second case the amount of dust in the air, caused by the open transportation of the various raw materials and the final product itself, has made it impossible to collect even rainwater. Many people have large cisterns which are (hopefully) filled during the rainy season, by collecting rainwater from their roofs. The speaker said that the dust is so thick and dirty, it coats everything. “In the past when it rained we celebrated, now when it rains we cry”.
In several places, the government of Ceará has sunk deep wells into the dunes and are pumping up the ground-water, transporting it to Fortaleza or to industrial sites or companies. This water extraction has a disastrous effect on the water table in the area. Ever-shrinking lagoons leave many locals without water and struggling to keep their crops and animals alive. One large lagoon which is having 30 million litres of water removed per day, has dried up for the first time in living memory.
The residents of a community a little further down the coast from us told how they are no longer allowed to approach the lagoon from which they have traditionally drawn their water. It is now in private hands and fenced off. In the same community, a large cattle farm blocked the source of fresh water where it fed into the mangroves and then dumped the effluent from the cows into the river. As a result,10 km of mangrove are dying. Many of the women in the community earn a living by harvesting crustaceans from within the mangroves, this die-off not only threatens their livelihood but is a disaster for wildlife and the surrounding environment³.
Unfortunately, so it went on.
Those of us from Prainha agreed that we are incredibly lucky to have our own underground water supply, to which we all have free access. Of course we still need rains to replenish the suppy but we are at less risk than other communities. Being a Reserve helps to protect that water, as any development that could negatively affect the Reserve is prohibited on the surrounding land. Another reason to protect our Reserve status.
Towards the end of the day, one man stood up and raised what I believe were some important points. He said that no one had mentioned the part deforestation plays in the water crisis we are facing. That while it was heartening to know other people (as he gestured around the room) were listening to the problems, there was not much point in talking if nothing was actually going to be done. He asked what was the purpose of the meeting, what decisions would be reached from hearing the testimonials of the participants. What actions would be called for and to whom would the demands be made known. All very good questions, which were met with polite, if slightly uncomfortable applause.
No doubt the FAMA event in Brasilia later in the month will hear many more testimonials. Hopefully, after the event, they will also be able to provide some answers.
¹ I did check on the FMA web site, as far as I could make out, you can apply for tickets by giving your credentials. That kind of implies it is an open event if you are the right sort of person.
² If you click on the link it will take you to the official government of Ceará hydro page. All the black triangles are reservoirs currently at between 0% and 9% capacity.
³ Mangroves provide a unique habitat for countless species and play a vital ecological role where no other tree is capable of surviving. They are home to many species that are at the base of the food chain. Mangroves provide a breeding and nursery habitat for many commercial marine fish species and consequently, their loss can have far-reaching negative impacts on marine fish populations. Obviously, this isn’t good for the fish but it also adversely effects those fishing communities who earn a livelihood from them.