Water for Life – innovative and entrepreneurial ways of storing water in semi-arid regions of Brazil
Access to water is not only about meeting basic human needs; it is critical to sustainable development, too. For instance, water is essential for agriculture and industry; it is a source of energy and also makes up an integral part of transport systems in many countries. One person needs to drink two to four litres of water every day, but the quantity of virtual water embedded in foods that we consume varies between 2,000 and 5,000 litres every day (waterfootprint.org). 70% of all global water withdrawals are needed for agriculture, in some countries even up to 90% (UN Water).
Water challenges will increase significantly in the coming years, for a large part due to the faster than ever growing world’s population, and because climate change impacts are heavily affecting the world’s environment and water resources. Already today, one out of five people in the world cannot take the access to safe drinking water for granted. And, two out of five people do not have access to even a simple pit latrine (UN Decade Water for Life). Even in the water-rich region of Latin America, hosting 31% of the world freshwater resources, 30 million people are without safe drinking water and 100 million without basic sanitation (WB News). While there is enough water, worldwide and in Latin America, but both natural and human-made unequal distribution leads to regional, and seasonal water scarcity, causing severe socio-economic results.
Water shortages in the Brazilian “Sertão“
The semiarid region in Brazil covers an area of nearly one million square kilometres and is home to 22 million people representing 11.8% of the Brazilian population. This means that it is the most populated semiarid region in the world. (ASA Brasil). Access to water in this region is heavily dependent on rainfall; but often the rainy season is short, and therefore rainfall limited and erratic, leading to droughts. On the other hand, in some years heavy rains cause floods. Therefore families living in this area have to use water in a smart and economical way.
In addition, climate change scenarios are forecasting an even greater hydrological deficit in the future. Already today the impacts of climate change are being felt in the region. A recent study shows that rainfall is becoming even scarcer and, over the past 50 years the average temperature increased by 1.75°C, above the world’s average increase of 0.8°C (National Geographic). These changes are already accelerating the trend of desertification and loss of vegetation and wildlife due to lack of water, and heavily affect the annual returns on agriculture. For example, for crops such as beans and corn, the loss rates are on average well above 70%.
Adapting to difficult situations: “Adapta Sertão”
The Brazilian network of co-operatives called “Adapta Sertão” is helping small-scale farmers to adapt to those difficult conditions. The 2008 SEED Award Winner started in 2006 in the municipality of Pintadas. Introducing small-scale water-efficient crop irrigation and biofuel production technologies, Adapta Sertão managed to improve local food security, reduce poverty by increasing income, creating local employment opportunities and mitigate carbon emissions and water use. Since then Adapta Sertão has grown to benefit 15 000 people and ceaselessly works to improve its “Intelligent and sustainable agro-climatic module” (MAIS); a combination of measures allowing farmers to withstand periods of drought.
Cactuses bringing life to the semiarid region
One key need in an area of short rainy seasons and unpredictable rainfall is clearly to store water. This, automatically, makes you think of large cisterns collecting rainwater. However, another solution exists:- biophysical water storage through the local cactus variety Palma Forrageira. The plant is able to absorb and retain water and continues to grow in situations of drought which means no water loss through transpiration, contrarily to an open cistern. While water from cisterns is used to irrigate small plots of land, Palma Forrageira is used as an animal feed.
Adapta Sertão conducted interviews with 120 farmers to understand which of the two systems is the most beneficial for farmers in terms of income generation and water storage capacity for animal feed. A rainwater collection system (52 m3) costs about USD 4,000 and can store a maximum of 70 m3 of per year, as it goes through cycles of recharge and discharge during the heavy and dry season. With this same amount, a farmer can implement 0.42 hectares of Palma Forrageira which stores up to 121 m3 of water. Consequently, the cost of storing one litre of water with the cistern is almost twice as high as storing water through Palma Forrageira.
In addition, Palma Forrageira is an animal feed. It serves up to 70% of the nutritional needs of cows, enabling milk production that generates about double the income compared to activities based on water from cisterns. Water from cisterns is, for example, used for growing vegetables for household consumption, this is very important for food security, but it doesn't necessarily generate a cash flow and increase income for the family.
Promoting solutions that benefit users most
Despite Palma Forrageira being one of the most efficient plant-based strategies to store water for animal feed, much of the emphasis in the Brazilian policy programs is still focusing on the construction of physical water harvesting system, and the biophysical approach remains untapped. Both systems are effective in delivering water to farmers and to people. However, their use and objective is very different. It is important to consider the final users of such technologies and their specific needs in order to supply people with what they really need.
Enhancing partnerships for sustainable development
This year, the decade “Water for Life” of the United Nations comes to its end. Its aim was to realize action-oriented activities and policies that ensure the long-term sustainable management of water resources. The experience of Adapta Sertão shows how developing solutions in partnerships can lead to innovative approaches, which are indispensable to achieve these goals. Going beyond water, sharing knowledge and experience, and establishing partnerships are key factors in promoting sustainable development.
During the SEED Africa Symposium, 9-10 September, Kenya, Nairobi, we invite you to join us to discuss the role of social and environmental enterprises, such as Adapta Sertão, in the Post-2015 Agenda and to enhance your networks with policy-makers, entrepreneurs, investors and practitioners.
The Blog was first published on The Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business.