Saturday is wash day. Together with her daughter, Rita de Lima leaves her
house at 5 in the morning, heading toward the Piranhas River in the city of
Jardim do Serido, located in the Northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte. She
opens her clothes basket that she has carried on her head, and washes dresses,
pants, T-shirts and underwear.
Then she hangs them up near the banks of the river and waits for them to dry. At the end of the day, she returns home. She will repeat the same routine the following Saturday. The river receives hundreds of women just like Rita every day.
Why do the women wash their clothes in the river? They responded that running water in the house is too expensive, and the city is not willing to build a community laundromat for low-income families.
What Rita and others may not know is that the river is already polluted. The Water and Sewage Company of Rio Grande do Norte (Caern), the company responsible for treatment and distribution of water to the city, disposes aluminum sulfate – a product used for purifying the water that is also very toxic – near the banks of the river.
Jardim do Serido is one of the 110 municipalities that occupy the banks of the Piranhas River, which runs through the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba. It is also one of the rivers that will receive water from the São Francisco River if the river’s transposition project moves forward.
The section of the river that runs through this city looks like an open sewage canal: plastic bottles, food wrappings, food remains, and glass bottles liter the river and its embankments. As there are many who do not have the city’s water and sewage hook-ups, a great deal of sewage is simply dumped right into the river.
Another factor contributing to the pollution is a textile company which also dumps its by-products into the river. This reporter visited one section of the river near the factory where a dead turtle was floating on green, soupy water with white bubbles.
Those who oppose the São Francisco River detour project use as one of their arguments that the waters of the Sao Francisco River are already polluted and have no way of being purified before running into the existing rivers, which themselves are polluted (like the Piranhas River).
“There is no shortage of water here,” said agronomist José Procópio de Lucena. “What we lack is good management and storage of water. Our problem is one of basic sewage treatment and trash management. We do not need any more polluted water.”
According to studies, the São Francisco River is polluted by mining operations, deforestation near its banks, the dumping of industrial by-products, sewage, and toxic chemicals from convention farming practices.
Lucena went on to assert that Jardim do Serido is one of the most polluting cities in the region. “Besides not having basic sewage treatment, the sulfuric acid used in dying hammocks and dish towels (another industry of the city) goes right into the river.” The situation is aggravated by planes which fly over the farmlands and drop chemicals not only on the land, but inadvertently in the river as well.
So many say that before diverting any river, the government should first focus on cleaning up the rivers as they are. “We should be investing in conservation of the Sao Francisco River, and the other rivers in the region. And we should first complete the water distribution projects that have already begun,” said Lucena.
While the majority of the city’s population consumes polluted water, the president of the city government, Luis Soares de Araújo, drinks bottled mineral water. While interviewing Araújo, this reporter asked about the water being served to her. “It’s mineral water,” replied Araújo.
And what about the water that is supplied to the city? “Those who can, buy mineral water.” And those who can’t? “We pride ourselves on the fact that the inhabitants of our city have excellent acquisitive power.” According to Araújo, the problem of the treatment of the river’s water should come from federal funding, which is “very difficult to have access to.”
Meanwhile, in the neighboring town, Caico, things are no better. Climbing up to a high point in the city, one can see the land dump situated next to the river. Arriving at the dump, the flies were so thick it was difficult to talk to the trash pickers there. The trash is not buried. Hospital trash is mixed in with the normal trash. When it rains, the muck goes right into the river.
For many, the solution to the water problems in the semi-arid regions is not the São Francisco River project. As Lucena stated, “What good is this project to connect two polluted rivers?”
Tatiana Merlino is a reporter for Brasil de Fato, where this article appeared originally.