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

    • Show Comments (0)

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    comment *

    • name *

    • email *

    • website *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


    You May Also Like

    All Systems Go for Brazil’s A-Bomb

    Brazil has refused to allow inspections that would reveal the capacity, characteristics and scope ...

    Supermarket in Brazil

    Low Inflation and Low Unemployment Spur Brazilian Consumers Confidence

    Brazilian consumers' confidence in the third quarter of this year has reached the second ...

    While Varig Draws Last Breath Brazil Readies Five Planes to Bring 28,000 Home

    A bankruptcy judge annulled Friday, June 23, the sale of Brazil flag carrier Varig ...

    Foreign Bulls Stir Brazil’s Market

    Brazilian  market strengthened this Friday, January 14, amid a batch of economic news, with ...

    Brazil and France Will Produce Biofuel in Africa and the Caribbean

    Brazil and France will develop projects to produce biofuel in African and Caribbean countries, ...

    Carlos Eduardo Cabral accused of killing Brazilian real estate agent Célia Carvalho

    Brazilian Seduces Via Net and Kills. Then Is Caught in Net Sting

    Brazilian real estate agent Célia Maria de Carvalho Damasceno, 43, started a passionate romance ...

    Lula at press conference

    Lula Calls Rumors He’ll Try Reelection in 2014 Nothing But Idle Talk

    Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, speaking to reporters at a joint press ...

    Not made in China

    Brazil’s Industry and Labor Unions Pull Together to Fight Chinese Imports

    Fiesp, São Paulo state’s Industrial Federation and labor unions have joined forces to create ...

    Brazilian chicken

    Brazilian Chicken Exports Grow 13% While Beef Exports Fall 28%

    According to figures released Friday, June 27, by the survey Statistics of Animal Husbandry ...