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Monday, 12 August, 2002, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
The fight for fresh water
donkey delivers water
Villagers rely on water brought by donkey

In the parched interior of north-east Brazil, a donkey driver delivers water to poor households in the village of Sao Mamede.

The state of Paraiba - with its wide-open arid landscapes stretching towards dramatic granite mountain peaks - has always been prone to drought, but in recent years the rains have failed repeatedly, causing local reservoirs to dry up.

So villagers here have to rely on deliveries for their water.

Arid landscape
Reservoirs have dried up and rains have failed
It comes in three grades - for cleaning, cooking and drinking. All at different prices, with the poorer families able only to afford sub-standard drinking water which can jeopardise their health.

Worse still, those without proper tanks to store their water are at risk of developing dengue fever, a devastating bug which is carried by mosquitoes.

At a public health clinic in the nearby city of Patos, Dr Paula Souto sees every day the human consequences of the water shortage, especially for the poor.

"People store their water in bottles or small tanks, but they don't cover them or clean them properly, so it's easy for the mosquitoes to get into the water, and that's what spreads the dengue," says Dr Souto.


I think it's because they can have power over the people if they don't bring this water

Local resident Tina Peixoto
What frustrates people in this area is that the politicians have been aware for years that reduced rainfall was storing up problems for the future, yet failed to take action which could have reduced the suffering of the population and the damage to the local economy.

One householder in Sao Mamede, Tina Peixoto, says, "They could have brought this water a long time ago. I think they want people dependent on them.

"If they brought water the people could have a good life. I think it's because they can have power over the people if they don't bring this water."

Desperate measures

It may sound an excessively cynical view, but it is one shared by just about everyone I spoke to during my visit to the area.

In the city of Patos itself, with a population of 100,000, things had become desperate, with the water supply having to be switched off for four out of every five days.

A local pressure group called in a water expert who said that the problem could be solved by building a pipeline to a reservoir 64 kilometres (40 miles) away - that brought thousands of people out onto the streets, demonstrating by banging their water containers in Samba rhythm, shouting "Pipeline or death."

Village scence
Residents have fought for years to get a pipeline
For eight years, this campaign made little headway, but as activist Alarcon Leitao explained, the political wheels finally began to turn.

"There was this wedding party. The state governor was there, having a good time. One of our members had a friendly conversation with him, and raised the question of the pipeline.

"But the real turning point was when local politicians told the governor they would only continue to support him if the pipeline was built," Mr Leitao said.

Long delay

Which seemed to do the trick. Earlier this summer, Patos was finally connected to the pipeline and the city itself now has a constant water supply, bringing hope that it can get to grips with the disease and poverty caused by the drought.

But in the outlying villages such as Sao Mamede, they are still waiting.

No-one can explain the delay, but the local suspicion is that the water supply will arrive with a flourish a little closer to the elections in October.

Not everyone is looking forward to the arrival of the pipeline - the donkey driver delivering water to the village will be out of a job when it comes.

See also:

09 Aug 02 | Business
05 Aug 02 | Business
22 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
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