Bringing Water and Hope to Brazil’s Backlands

 Bringing Water and Hope 
  to Brazil's Backlands

Brazil’s Million Cisterns
Project has become an important
component of Brazilian President Lula’s Zero Hunger campaign.
MCP has inspired many other organizations to participate in the
funding and/or construction of cisterns, relieving some pressure
from pursuing lofty goals with severely limited resources.
by: Phillip

A cistern

Although Brazil accounts for 8 percent of all fresh water in the world, the
expansive dry regions of northeastern Brazil account for only 3 percent of
the Brazilian total, or less than one quarter of 1 percent of the world’s
fresh water. Access to water in interior Brazil is complicated by a lack of

In the state of Bahia,
for example, "There are 417 towns and cities, and a quarter of them have
no paved links" a trade association representative was quoted as saying
in the American Chambers of Commerce February, 2004 edition of Update.

Even the major roads are
often all but impassable. The bus I took from Bahia’s capital had two flats
on a major highway pocked with moonscape-like craters.

In Bahia’s semi-arid caatinga,
Senhor do Bonfim is a small town seat representing the Bonfim Catholic diocese.
The Medical Missionaries of Mary and a cistern building project they have
undertaken are supported by Trócaire, the official overseas development
agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Trócaire, which
is Irish-Gaelic for `compassion’ was established by the Irish Catholic Bishops
in 1973 "to express the concern of the Irish Church for the suffering
of the world’s poorest and most oppressed people".

Água, Saúde
e Vida, or ASV, which means Water, Health and Life is the name of the cistern
building project in the Capim Grosso region. The Medical Missionaries frequently
collaborate with organizations like a regional institute known as IRPAA (Instituto
Regional da Pequena Agropecuária Apropriada—Regional Institute
for Appropriate Small-scale Farming), through which small farmers receive
resource management guidance, especially related to the region’s most precious
resource: water.

IRPAA advises that "special
attention must be paid to the provision of water for the population and for
agricultural needs" given the irregularity of rainfall, the fact that
there are few ground water reserves and considering that the evaporation rate
sometimes exceeds precipitation.

Update noted that almost
half of Bahia’s 13 million inhabitants live in the "two thirds of its
territory (that is) semi-arid land—where extreme poverty and drought
are widespread". Family cisterns are being constructed throughout the
region to capture and store the precious little precipitation that falls there.

The Million Cisterns

Million Cisterns Project,
or MCP, is the cistern building glamour-tag in Brazil, and has become an important
component of President Lula’s Fome Zero, or Zero Hunger, campaign. MCP has
inspired many other organizations to participate in the funding and/or construction
of cisterns, relieving some pressure from pursuing lofty goals with severely
limited resources.

MCP sometimes appears
to be more virtual than real, blending into its surroundings while relentlessly
pursuing ways to help identify and prioritize candidate recipients, procure
funds, and oversee construction. Little by little the job is getting done.

MCP seeks out regional
non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, through which to work. It works through
the Catholic Church in Bahia to leverage existing functional organizational
structures and leadership with prior experience; all MCP cistern construction
in the Bonfim diocese is coordinated through the diocese. But the formal MCP
undertaking accounts for only a portion of the work associated with its initiative.

Progress to Date

Comprehensive cistern
building data is not commonly gathered or maintained. MCP field representative
Junivan Matos dos Santos says MCP constructed 623 cisterns in two Bonfim diocese
municipalities, including Capim Grosso, with funding from SECOMP (Secretaria
de Combate à Pobreza e às Desigualdades Sociais—Secretariat
for Combating Poverty and Social Inequities).

Junivan was able to say
that 2,157 cisterns were constructed in all 22 municipalities of the Bonfim
diocese that are administered out of Bonfim. That figure does not include
cisterns constructed under other administrative authorities.

The cisterns the Medical
Missionaries are constructing, for example, are administered by the local
parish because the Medical Missionaries are independent of the Bonfim diocese
and have objectives which surpass the MCP goal of constructing cisterns to
collect and store rainwater.

The driving force behind
Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) cistern work in the region, Sister Joana
Corkery, said that in the general vicinity of the Capim Grosso municipality
MMM/ASV is building 80 cisterns in the 2003/2004 timeframe.

In the 2001/2002 timeframe
MMM/ASV constructed 40 cisterns. The Million Cisterns Project (MCP) is in
the process of constructing 30 additional cisterns in the Capim Grosso municipality,
in cooperation with MMM.

A European Foundation
(Mãos Unidos—Joined Hands) has funded 446 cisterns in the Bonfim
diocese. Caritas, a Catholic social-action organization, has been another
funding source. Sometimes the municipalities themselves are the primary funding
source. Multiple sources sometimes collaborate to fund a common group of cisterns.

Cisterns built under the
direction of the state Agricultural School are also not included among the
2,157 administered by the Bonfim diocese. The nationwide ecumenical philanthropic
organization known as CESE is yet another conduit through which external funding
sources deliver capital to fund cistern building.

With so many organizations
working sometimes individually and sometimes in collaboration with one another,
and administered from different places where information is gathered and maintained
in different ways, it’s impossible to know exactly how many cisterns have
been, are being, and still need to be built. But it’s clear that the end is
not in sight. Bahia alone is the size of France.

The Trócaire
/ Medical Missionaries Model

Sister Joana Corkery advised
me that "Medical Missionaries focuses on care of the mother and child.
So we’ll work on whatever helps them, and especially when it involves health.
A lot of that work here is around water and sanitation. Constructing cisterns
is one way we do that". MCP’s objective, by contrast, is purely building
cisterns to catch and hold rainwater.

"We established our
(program) on the basis of addressing the health of the people" said Joana.
"A mother that no longer has to spend hours each day foraging for water
is less tired, and is more able to look after her children. When she doesn’t
have to walk for miles and miles to collect water she can be more civil. So
we build cisterns on a number of factors although, of course, most basically
that the water is clean".

In the Capim Grosso municipality
both MCP and Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) prosecute the planning, construction
and oversight of cisterns, consistent with the Trócaire/MMM model.
MCP adoption of that approach there derives from the fact that Junivan was
an original member of the Trócaire sponsored MMM project before becoming
an MCP field representative.

Both MCP and MMM prioritize
cistern candidate selection based on a range of factors, including the presence
of handicapped individuals, the number of children, the distance that must
be covered to forage for water, etc.


"A woman told me
just recently that for years and years she’d had stomach pain, but since they’d
got a cistern it stopped", said Joana. "She isn’t sure if the pain
abated because she no longer walks such great distances for water or whether
it is because now the water is clean".

Another woman said she
used to have to pass (each way/each day) through five barbed wire fences to
collect water. And still another just smiled at Joana and said, "It (the
cistern) is like my mother, she’s always there when I need her".

Joana believes the woman
that suffered from stomach pains may have been ingesting parasites from contaminated
water. "But the parasites wouldn’t just go away by themselves would they?"
I asked. No she said, "But the people here take a lot of natural medicines,
like aloe vera with another leaf known by the regional name of tioiou,
and that combination is very good for the expulsion of vermin. We talk about
a form of slavery" said Joana.

"And you know its
liberating women from a kind of drudgery and slavery that is just such hard
work and so negatively impacts their health. That’s where we come from in
terms of thinking about making cisterns".

Planning, Process and

The Medical Missionaries
fear that cisterns will be built without doing all that’s necessary to ensure
that results will be effective. "Cistern building needs to be done systematically"
Joana says. "The actual construction is only one element".

The Medical Missionaries
driven program has produced a 40-page booklet that is employed by both recipients
and program representatives throughout the cistern planning, construction
and implementation cycle. About half of the material covers five indoctrination
encounters through which cistern recipients are progressively educated about
water resource management, cisterns and cistern care.

"You may say that
the 80 cisterns we’re building (in 2003/2004) is a very small number, and
now I’m only talking about the (Trócaire supported) Medical Missionaries
project, but we use that opportunity to get into the countryside in order
to help educate the people around issues of health. We’re not rushing the
construction, and we want to keep that space open for as long as we need to".
One reason is to address responsibility and ownership issues.

"When we construct
a cistern, it’s not a gift," says Joana. "We build it and finance
it, but the recipients have to pay back 50 percent of the cost of the materials
for constructing the cistern over a two-year period". The simple donation
of a cistern, she insisted, is insufficient to promote independence because
the recipients won’t own it. "It’s a gift that they won’t have any involvement

"We don’t ask them
to reimburse anything for the actual cost of construction," she added.
On the morning of my interview the current cost of cisterns constructed by
the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) was averaged at 724 reais (US$
241) and 150 (US$ 48) of that was for labor. So a current MMM cistern recipient
is obligated to repay 287 reais, about US$ 93, over two years.

Bonfim diocese MCP cistern
construction cost data varies upward from the Medical Missionaries figures.
MCP administered-through-Bonfim cisterns may more frequently be an improved
version of cisterns recently developed in a series of tests at a seminar in
Feira de Santana.

Cement used to construct
the stronger new version dries in four days, compared with the six that had
previously been needed. MCP-administered-through-Bonfim cisterns may also
have a greater average capacity. The cisterns I examined held between 4,000
and 16,000 liters of water.

MCP averages their cost
of materials, excluding labor, at 810 reais, compared to 576 for MMM.
So the overall cost of an MCP administered-through-Bonfim cistern is approximately
960 reais, about US$ 310. That’s 236 reais, or about US$ 76,
more than the overall cost of a MMM cistern.

Bearing the Burden
of Ownership

That afternoon I visited
a number of cisterns that had been constructed in the Capim Grosso municipality.
Some were MMM program constructed cisterns, others were not. One small casa
I visited was home to two adults and nine children subsisting on a weekly
income of about 15 reais (US$ 5) that the man of the house earned as
a day-laborer.

That amounts to an annual
income of 780 reais, or about US$ 252, which is only slightly more
than the overall cost of a MMM constructed cistern.

It seemed inconceivable
to me that this family could repay half the cost of materials over a two-year
period. But Joana assured me that deadline extensions are granted in such

And she added, "They
don’t have to pay us back in money. They can pay in products … manioc,
whatever. We’re not after the money; we’re after the independence and the

Any monetary repayment
comes back to the MMM program at the Parish level, and is channeled into the
water commission to help maintain program continuity through ongoing education,
as well as to keep building cisterns. "The education factor is quite
a factor" says Joana.

Based on my personal observations
I would guess that a typical household includes five to seven people. The
rural weekly average household income in the region probably doesn’t exceed
25 or 30 reais (8 to 10 dollars). So families participating in the
program are really expected to feel the pain of their commitment, which Medical
Missionaries asserts is vital to securing personal ownership. A family making
that kind of sacrifice won’t be inclined to let their cistern go to pot.

The Medical Missionaries

I asked Joana to help
me better understand the process of Medical Missionaries cistern building.
"We don’t begin by visiting individual homes. We go to a community and
ask them to determine who most needs the cisterns. The coordinator in the
community will indicate the people, and then we’ll bring those people together
to meet.

"One of the things
is that they have to be prepared to enter the process of paying back 50 percent
of the cost of materials within two years. Now you, coming from the United
States, might say that’s pretty difficult. These people are desperately poor.
But we will never learn to teach people to be independent if we just give

"Poor people, who
have little educational formation, have a difficult time understanding why
they can’t just have cisterns for a gift. And then you have to deal with the
município, especially in an election year. They’ll go out now
and build one with, you know, no preparation of the land or of the community.

"So there’s no responsibility
on the part of the receiving party. They’re getting it because it’s a political
gift to win a favor of votes. One of the things that we work very hard at
here, at the level of the church, is to try to build independence. We want
to avoid building more need. We want to help people to become independent."

When pressed to say what
impact the Medical Missionaries presence was having Joana related the following
folktale, author unknown:

"There was a fire
in the forest and all the bigger animals were running away: the jaguars, the
large snakes, the monkeys, the wolves, the tapir and so on, with their offspring,
heading for the mountains. And so the hummingbird went to a nearby puddle
of water and took a little drop of water and came and put it on the fire.

"So all the animals
began to laugh you know and say, the poor bird has no sense, he doesn’t know
what he’s doing. Finally, one of the animals stopped to ask the hummingbird
what it thought it was going to achieve, and the bird said, well, I’m doing
my part. So the story goes that if everybody did their part, the world would
be better and the weak would be made strong".


Joana Corkery joined the
Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1967, spent 18 years in Nigeria, served in
Rwanda during the massacres, and has been in Brazil for nine years.

More About Trócaire

Trócaire envisages
a just world where people’s dignity is ensured, rights are respected and basic
needs are met; where there is equity in the sharing of resources and people
are free to be the authors of their own development.

Trócaire was given
a dual mandate: to support long-term development projects overseas and to
provide relief during emergencies; and at home to inform the Irish public
about the root causes of poverty and injustice and mobilize the public to
bring about global change.

Trócaire draws
its inspiration from Scripture and the social teaching of the Catholic Church.
The agency strives to promote human development and social justice in line
with Gospel values.

Its work is also influenced
by the experiences and the hopes of the poor and oppressed. Trócaire
supports communities in their efforts to improve their lives, meet their basic
needs and ensure their human dignity. This support is offered regardless of
race, gender, religion or politics and in a spirit of solidarity.

In its role as an advocate
for the poor, Trócaire raises public awareness in Ireland of poverty
and injustice. It analyses the causes of poverty and mobilizes the Irish public
to campaign to bring about global change.

This action is undertaken
in a bid to improve the lives of the world’s poorest and most oppressed citizens
in line with the principles of social justice.

Trócaire is the
agency that supports Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Junivan Matos dos Santos
helped establish Trócaire and later began to represent MCP specifically.

Special thanks to AEC-TEA
volunteer Audra Abt, from Ohio, who provided translator services in Capim

Phillip Wagner is a frequent contributor to Brazzil magazine. His
current focus is preparing to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University
in September of 2004, with a regional focus on Brazil. He has been in Brazil
improving his Portuguese and working with social programs.

He is a volunteer
Campaign Associate for Oakland, California based Nourish the New Brazil,
which supports President Lula’s national zero hunger initiative. He is also
the volunteer Bahia Program Development Director for the Rio based Iko Poran
volunteer placement organization and a member of the advisory board for
the Didá project.

Phillip maintains
an extensive website at
and can be reached at

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