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English Report

While 20% of the Brazilian population (about 37 million people) lacks access to potable water, in rural areas the portion rises to 90% without proper sanitation, including access to clean drinking water.  The crisis reaches into the periphery of the cities.  Basically, it is the poor who go thirsty.

Water and Human Rights

* Roberto Malvezzi

 The modern debate about water and human rights includes its connections with various fields of knowledge beyond hydrology. This issues has been reduced to ‘hydrological resources,’ the specialty of hydrologists and seen only in its power-generating, food-producing, and sanitation dimensions. Now, it has to be discussed in relation to biology, environmentalism, society, leisure activities, tourism, politics, and the economy – and in connection with human rights. Essentially, the discussion about water must be expanded from just its various uses to include its value and multiple dimensions. 

 First of all, let’s take an abstraction: ‘water’ and ‘hydrological resources’ are inseparable concepts, but not identical ones. Water is a natural resource, previous and basic to all forms of life, the place where life began, part of and essential to every living thing. Water, therefore, is an irreplaceable and indispensable good. 

 A study presented at the World Environmental Summit in Johannesburg contained disturbing findings concerning the relationship of water and health, agriculture, energy, and biodiversity. Deforestation, reduction of biodiversity, soil devastation, and pollution of waterways paint a frightening picture of famine, thirst, disease, misery and death across the planet. 

 According to the study, in the world today 1.2 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water – that is, about 20% of humanity.  Worse yet, almost 2.4 billion people lack basic sanitation, which amounts to about 40% of the world population.  Those who suffer more are the poor, particularly children. Two million children die every year of water-related diseases. In the poorest countries, for every five children born, one child dies before the age of five from lack of clean water.  Half of the world’s hospital beds are filled with victims of water-related illnesses.

 The problem in Brazil is also serious. While 20% of the Brazilian population (about 37 million Brazilians) lacks access to potable water,[1] in rural areas the portion rises to 90% without proper sanitation, including access to clean drinking water. In these areas, the problem is concentrated in the semi-arid region, which is the least urbanized, and where the lowest sanitation standards can be found. 

 The lack of clean drinking water also reaches into the periphery of the cities.  Essentially, it is the poor who go thirsty.  This is why the establishment of a regulatory framework for sanitation, which the Ministry of Cities is developing, is so important. ‘Thirst’ in this context means a lack - either in quantity, quality or regularity – of potable water, to such a degree that it does not guarantee a person, family or community the minimum amount needed to sustain normal physiological functioning.  This amount has been calculated at two liters of water per day. 

 Another concept we work with is ‘water shortage’, which means a lack - either in quantity, quality or regularity – of potable water, to such a degree that it does not meet the everyday consumption and hygiene needs of a person, family, or community.  This amount has been determined by the World Health Organization to be forty liters of water per day.  When any one of these measurements – quality, quantity, or regularity – fails, it amounts to a shortage, but these days a shortage is actually only recognized when it is the quantity of water which is lacking. 

 Because it is irreplaceable and indispensable, water amounts to an inherent right.  No human being, no living thing, may be deprived of his/her/its access to water without violating its very nature or even putting its life in danger.  Still, entire populations are seeing one of their fundamental rights trampled in a massive and systematic way.

 The recognition of water as a fundamental human right has been rejected by governments, multilateral organizations, and corporations that would like to turn it into a commodity. As of today, the United States government has not signed the International Agreement on the Human Right to Nourishment, which establishes that the State is responsible for feeding its people based on the three concepts: “protect, promote, and provide”. It also implies that foodstuffs should not obey the laws of the marketplace, but rather the logic of rights. 

 However, many countries resist codifying water as a right in their legal systems.  They accept water, just as food, as a need, not a right.  This way of thinking creates a rupture between natural and legal rights. 

 1 - “A Million Cisterns” Campaign (P1MC)

 This campaign is an initiative of civil society organizations in the semi-arid region of Brazil. They form a network with approximately a thousand groups, including NGOs, unions, and social movements. It envisions the construction of a million cisterns to capture rainwater for human consumption. The project can benefit six million people. The campaign extends throughout the semi-arid region of Brazil, which includes parts of eleven states: Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará, Piauí and Maranhão.  The semi-arid has an area of 867,999.3 sq km, with about 18,466,637 people - 9,835,806 in urban areas and 8,630,691 in rural areas. It is the most populous semi-arid region on Earth.

 It is precisely this rural population that makes up the “map of thirst” in Brazil, and suffers the impacts of water shortages.  Currently, the water for most of these people is supplied by a ‘barreiro’ system:  that is, a hole dug into the ground that stores rainwater collected over the rainy season to be used during the dry months. This primitive water storage system, while providing enough to satisfy a family’s basic needs, does not supply clean water for drinking. Often what is consumed in rural areas is a mixture of water and dirt that can cause diseases. 

 These Cisterns are built with simple technology. They are storage reservoirs built next to houses, half dug into the ground, that collect water run-off from the roof. An entire course in water resource management is given to the recipient families, so they learn to manage their cooking and drinking water. The cisterns are sealed against insects and sunlight. Without light, algae don’t grow, and the water is kept clean for human consumption.

 The impact on the health, particularly among the elderly and children, is immediate.  It also lightens the workload of women, so often bent double from the debilitating effort to find and transport water.  Just as immediately, a certain freedom from political influence takes effect, as water shortages are often used as a tool for social control. The goal of the project is to reach a million families in five years.

2 – Public Sanitation

 There are serious problems related to public sanitation in Brazil. While 20% of our population lacks access to clean drinking water,  50% lack proper sewer systems, and 80% of the sewage is dumped directly into various bodies of water.  Lack of sanitation contributes overwhlemingly to the pollution of 70% of Brazil’s rivers.

 When the Lula administration took office and created the Ministry of Cities, a page was turned in the management of sanitation in Brazil.   A new regulatory framework is being set up that, if approved and implemented, will open a new chapter for public sanitation. The draft bill defines ‘public sanitation as a collective effort with the objective of improving public health, including the water supply; the collection, treatment, and disposition of sewage and solid and gaseous waste, along with all other urban clean-up services; the management of urban rainwater; environmental control of diseases and infestations in reservoirs, and the management of land occupation and use in such a way as to maximize the fostering of, and improvement in urban and rural living standards’[2][3].

 The bill is based on the principles of universality, and establishes that sanitation as an obligation of the State.  It foresees that US$170 billion will be needed over twenty years to resolve these issues. 

3 – Report on Rural Land and Water Rights

 The importance of this report lies in its aim to create a culture of the right to water in Brazilian society, which, as in the rest of the world, experiences opposition from businesses, corporations, and local governments. This new perspective on water can become an important tool to protect human rights.

 There is hope for the protection of water rights in Brazil; hope that the population will have access to the water it requires – in quality, quantity, and regularity – for its everyday needs.


- CNBB: “Água, Fonte de Vida”. Basic Text, Brotherhood Campaign 2004. Ed. Salesiana. S. Paulo. 2004.

- Ministry of Cities: “Diretrizes para os Serviços Púbicos de Saneamento Básico e a Política Nacional de Saneamento Ambiental – PNSA. (Anteprojeto de Lei). 2004. Ministry of Cities website.

- Flávio Valente: “Relatório do Direito à Terra e Água Rural”. Obtained directly from the reporter.

- Roberto Malvezzi: “La industria de la seca e sus antídotos”. In “Derecho a la alimentación em el Brasil de Lula” (Cadernos do Ceam). Universidade de Brasília. 2004.

- Idem: “Direito à Água como Alimento”. Available online from the author.

Roberto Malvezzi (Gogó) is a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the CPT (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, Pastoral Land Commission).

[1][2] Basic text of Campanha da Fraternidade, citing data from the Panamerican Health Organization (Opas).

[2][3] Cap 2, Art. 2,I: PNASA (National Policy on Public Sanitation, Draft Bill). Ministry of Cities.