Water: a right not a commodity

For 23 of her 30 years, Dalila Calisto, member of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens: MAB), lived in Alagamar, a hundred-year-old community in the municipality of Jaguaribara, in Ceará.  The Jaguaribe River cut through the city and this shaped the young peasant woman’s life.  Leisure was connected to the river; if the water ran out at home, her family would replenish their supply from the river.

In the first half of the 1990s, when Dalila was only a child, works began that would change her life, and those of thousands of people, forever: the construction of the Castanhão Dam. The federal government decided to build a dam on the Jaguaribe riverbed, with the stated aim of economic development in the region. For this reason, old Jaguaribe was to be flooded and a new city built from scratch in another area.

New Jaguaribara was ‘sold’ as the first planned city of Ceará. However, had it not been for the struggle, the community of Dalila’s birth would have been pushed aside. It was only after years of demanding a new territory that people from the community were able to obtain their piece of land and, although they set up the Alagamar Resettlement, from then on they were further from the river, with limited access to this resource.

“People’s lives changed a lot. Today we only have houses and land to plant – at least from a rational perspective – because there was a fight.  The state’s intention was to supply the metropolitan region of Fortaleza, not to guarantee the rights of affected families.  Historically in Brazil, and particularly in the semi-arid regions of the Northeast, water has always been involved in power disputes and relations,” Dalia confirmed.

Dalila explained that, in the initial period, when the families affected by the Castanhão Dam were resettled, they had access to running water, but never for agricultural purposes.  “When the drought hit the Northeast, the water was directed to those who farm prawns, to agribusiness.  So the water was being privatized.  Even now, we only have water for our basic needs, for human consumption,” she reported.


Different states, similar struggles

The struggle the Alagamar community fought throughout the 90s is the same one that Fernanda Rodrigues, also from MAB, faces on a daily basis in Pernabmuco.  She lives in the quilombola community of Cupira, in the Santa Maria da Boa Vista municipality.  This is one of the communities threatened by the Pedra Branca and Riacho Seco Hydroelectric Complex. The communities in the region have been resisting this enterprise for 13 years.

Fernando is in no doubt that, if the dams are built, her people will suffer. “If it happens, we will probably be relocated to an area far from the river and access to this water will be privatized. At the moment, we are still here because of the struggle.” And there is no lack of examples to prove her right.  The quilombola cites the case of the Itaparica hydroelectric dam, located in Petrolândia, at the border between the states of Pernambuco and Bahia.

When it was built, in 1986, the companies responsible for the enterprise agreed between themselves that all the affected families would receive arable land to work, housing, land for livestock, technical support, a guaranteed 2.5 minimum wages up to the start of production, fair compensation and that those affected would participate in resettlement decisions.  But this is not what happened.  In 2012, MAB drew attention to their failure to comply (in Portuguese).

Fernanda noted that for three years the municipal government has passed on to the farming families the cost of pumping water to the affected communities. Water that previously was collected directly from the Itaparica lake now has a cost.  “This the experience with the other dams.  Neither of the two parties take responsibility: neither the company, which profits from the energy; nor the state, which has no policy.”


Sanitation for those who can pay

Big business has found yet another way to impose its interests on the dispute over water.  At the end of 2021, the Supreme Federal Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal: STF) decreed that the new legal framework for basic sanitation (Law 14026), sanctioned in 2020 by the federal government, was constitutional.  The private sector has definitively entered the scene and will be able to decide who has access to water, waste collection and treatment, and who does not.  Everything is now disputed in bidding processes between state and private companies.

Dalila claimed that the aim of all of this is to transform water into a financial asset and criticized the example of Teresina (the state capital of Piauí), where sanitation services have already been privatized. “Our water bill used to be BRL 50.00, 50% of this was the sanitation charge.  Following three years of privatization, this charge is now 100%”.  Nevertheless, the Piauí capital ranks among the worst 20 cities in the Trata Brasil Institute’s 2021 Sanitation Rankings (in Portuguese).

And the crisis continues to worsen.  The new law also allows for the slicing up of sanitation service provision, in other words: different companies could be responsible for different stages of sanitation.  Dalila confirmed that the private sector is only interested in those cities that already have some structure and the new law opens up a loophole so that they can compete only for water distribution, the cheapest part of the process.

The new legal framework provides for the inseparable provision of water supply and sewage services.  However, in the latter case, performing only one of these activities – the collection, transport, treatment or final disposal of waste – can be understood as a public sewage service.  The activist is afraid that the most important parts will be relegated to state-owned companies, but now without the cross-subsidy, which enabled the reapplication of resources from profitable municipalities to less profitable ones.

Cupira, the community where Fernanda lives, does not even have a service for the collection or treatment of sewage.  She noted that today everything is dumped directly into the river or runs outside, in the open air. With the privatization of the service, the prospect of her land receiving it, which was already low, will be still lower. And although it is a quilombola community certified by the Palmares Foundation, Cupira has still not received its land titles, making all its struggles even more difficult.


CESE alongside the movements

World Water Day, celebrated on March 22, provides an arena to debate the importance of guaranteeing access to quality water and basic sanitation to the entire population.  In a situation of so many injustices, CESE reaffirms its commitment to the defence and guarantee of water as a fundamental human right and supports initiatives from the grassroots movements for the defence of the waters.  Water is a right, not a commodity.