Endless Drought Challenges Agreste's Way Of Life

Water has vanished in Pernambuco: In the last four years, it neither has fallen from the sky nor has made its way to the sinks and faucets

João Valadares Carolina Linhares
Agreste Pernambucano and Berizal e Jequitaí

Water has vanished in Poção, in Pernambuco. In the last four years, it neither has fallen from the sky nor has made its way to the sinks and faucets. The area is located in Pernambuco's agreste, in Northeastern Brazil, a stretch of land between coastal forests and the semiarid backcountry. Poção's 65 towns are in state of emergency.

The upcoming "big flood", promised by the São Francisco River Transfer, stopped halfway because the construction of channels and water pipelines has stalled.

Indignity has become part of the daily routine. "You just have to wait for the water to cool down, strain it, let it settle and then you can drink. No problem," says one resident, a man who lives with R$ 250 (US$ 60.5) monthly, including public assistance.

POÇÃO - PE - When the water tanker truck arrives, people mob around it to collect water
POÇÃO - PE - When the water tanker truck arrives, people mob around it to collect water - Danilo Verpa/Folhapress

His 10-year-old granddaughter listens on and nods in agreement. "The water is good," she says. A nearby public school had to stay closed for three days. "We didn't have enough water to make the children's lunch," said school cook Sandra da Silva, 38.  She has water cistern at home. "I use the muddy water to bathe and to cook. I don't drink it."

In this area, the economy used to be based on dairy farms and apparel companies. But the agreste has turned into the semiarid backcountry.

"This weather cycle is new. There is no water. It's worse than in the semiarid zone," says Patrice Oliveira, manager for weather and climate change of Pernambuco's Department of Water and Climate.

The region's main water source, Jucazinho dam in Surubim, is at 5.8 percent capacity.

Milk production has fallen by half. Official state data shows that before the drought started, 2.5 million liters (660,000 gallons) were produced daily. In some towns, cattle herds suffered a 65 percent reduction. In others, the cattle is almost all gone.

There are 30 water reservoirs in utter collapse, statewide. The extended drought is transforming entire towns. Water ownership becomes a sign of wealth.  

In Poção, it has become a luxury item. Whoever earns minimum wage (US$ 230 monthly) is considered rich, because they can buy water from a cartel of sellers who are using this catastrophe as a way to improve their own lives. 

"I buy a 250 liter cylinder (66 gallons) for RS 3 (US$ 0,75) and I sell it for R$ 10, R$ 12 (US$ 2 to US$ 3) in town. I sell 30 cylinders daily," says Givanildo Ferreira, 35, who quit his serving job to resell water.

Ferreira's supplier is José Paulo, 33. The lack of rain threw him out of town. After losing 30 cattle, he went to São Paulo. "I spent four years there working in construction. I helped build a hospital," he says, showing his pride. He came back to Poção two years ago.  

He spent all his life savings, R$ 19,000 (US$ 4,500) and drilled two artesian wells in his backyard. "I found good water. Here, it's like finding oil. But you need to manage the well properly, so it doesn't dry up. I'm making a living of them, by selling 70 cylinders daily."

For the poor, the only choice is join the line up, looking ashamed. They are the water beggars, fighting each other because there's not enough for everybody.

In the Cohab neighborhood of Poção, each adult can only take two buckets at a time of a 10,000-liter tank (2,600 gallons), filled weekly by Pernambuco's state water company, Compesa.

The situation is the same in other water tanks around town. Small children stay out in the sun to reserve a spot in the line.

When the water tanker truck arrives, people mob around it to collect water. On time, people were yelling because it was a false alarm. Containers were lined up, and children already took their positions in line.

One of Compesa employee Joelmir da Silva's duties is to break up fights.


Berizal, in northern Minas Gerais, along with other 101 towns in the state, also entered state of emergency this year, due to the drought.

For the last six years, the situation worsened in the northern part of the state with repeated rainfall rates below average -- 70% of rivers and streams are either completely dry or compromised, according to the state government.

Depleted dams, wells and headwaters leave no alternative to farmers and ranchers, official data show. Since 2012, the number of cattle in the area fell 25 percent. Pasture damage is present in 87.6 percent of the total area. Last harvest had a loss of 85.4 percent in grain and 62 percent in milk. 

Countryside residents, for the most part, depend on water tanker trucks to have water at home.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

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