From the field

A Study in Water

The government in Brazil has spent a billion dollars getting clean water to people—but is it money going down the drain?

Donna Paris
Image of man with donkey carrying water containers

Nearly a billion people around the world can’t turn on a tap and get clean running water.

That is the case in the Northeast region of Brazil, one of the poorest areas in the country. Here towns are small and remote, and there is little access to tap water. Residents, mainly small-scale farmers, rely on surface water gathered in containers from rivers. They spend many hours travelling to and from their water sources—sources that may be contaminated.

In response, at a cost of about US$1,500 per home, the federal government started installing cisterns. It’s a simple technology: eavestroughs collect rainwater flowing from the rooftop directly into the cistern. The government expected that the rainwater would be cleaner than the river water and that the project would free up time for people as they would no longer have to spend time travelling to get water.

“In the early 2000s, the government decided to universalize the project and started building hundreds of thousands of cisterns,” says Marco Gonzalez-Navarro, assistant professor of economics at UTSC. “Everybody loves the cisterns and wants one as it makes a property more valuable. The government has spent more than a billion dollars building them.”

But do they work? “This was a huge investment, but there was no systematic study to track the health and economic impacts,” says Gonzalez-Navarro, who launched a study in 2010 to assess effectiveness of the project. His team finished collecting data last year and are now in the process of analyzing it.

“It’s a very interesting study and very exciting because this study could have a big impact. If not for studies like this one, the government would have no idea if goals were achieved,” Gonzalez-Navarro says.

Preliminary evidence suggests that there has not been a significant health impact because water quality did not noticeably improve. “Assumptions were made that the water was going to be as clean as tap water, but it has tested positive for E. coli bacteria as the rooftop is not a sterile place,” says Gonzalez-Navarro noting that if water is not chlorinated, it will not be clean.

In addition, it was assumed that rainfall would be sufficient, but it hasn’t been, and water trucks are required to fill the cisterns.

There is some evidence to suggest a positive economic impact: people don’t spend so much time fetching water so they can dedicate more effort to other paid work, such as sewing clothing or selling foodstuffs in the market, which means they can earn enough money to buy a chicken, a cow or even a motorcycle—things that improve their lives.

“It’s important before you spend billions of dollars in a poor country to know what the impact is,” says Gonzalez-Navarro. “All of this suggests that there is more work to be done, otherwise the government might have thought, ‘Oh, we’ve solved the water problem.’”