June 30, 2020

Water in Brazil’s Desert

Dustin Comm, Maranatha Volunteers International

When most people think of Brazil, they imagine the green rainforest of the Amazon teeming with diverse fauna and flora. Brazil doesn’t usually bring to mind images of a dry, desolate landscape dotted with tall cacti.

In the northeast of Brazil, however, the landscape changes. Lush vegetation gives way to parched earth. The forest dissolves into a desert, and life is much harder for all who call this region home. It doesn’t rain much here, especially during the spring and summer months, and the area is susceptible to long periods of drought.

The people here lead simple lives. They are subsistence farmers, or they maintain jobs that pay a humble wage. It is common for families to live in the same homes in the same villages for generations.

As you drive across the brown countryside, most of these homes have a common feature: blue plastic water tanks to catch rain that falls. While the government has installed concrete cisterns over the years and will occasionally deliver water with a truck, the residents here can never count on these solutions — the water may not come for months.

Edsandro Alves works in an auto repair shop in Catuca, which sits on top of a small mountain. His house is next door to the Catuca Seventh-day Adventist Church, where he serves as a leader. Like everyone else here, Alves’s life used to revolve around securing water for his family each day. They would hope for rain, which often didn’t come. If there was no rainwater to collect, they had to find a car or motorcycle and drive down the mountain to a lagoon almost four miles away.

The stagnant water sitting in this type of lagoon or pond is visibly dirty. People can get sick, but they don’t have many other options except to drink it. When you ask the people if this water causes health problems, they deny it. Maranatha’s project director in Brazil, Marcos Pinheiro, understands it is a hard thing to acknowledge.

“When you know you have to continue drinking this water, you’re going to blame other things for sickness,” Pinheiro said. “People say, ‘Oh, this food I ate was bad’ or find another reason they are sick. It is never the water.”

When the ponds were dry, Alves used to hike up the mountain to a cacimba, a kind of weak spring where water drips from the earth and accumulates in a deep hole when it rains. But there is such little output that it takes hours to fill jugs, and the line to collect water starts before the sun rises. If the cacimba is dry, the very last resort is purchasing water to be delivered. For families in this region, spending money on water means not having funds for other necessities.

Samara Domingos is a young mother in Catuca. She has had to make the difficult decision to buy water several times.

“We buy only as a last resort,” Domingos said. “If we buy, then we have to give up something, like food or clothes for the children.”

Instead of making this choice, Domingos has sometimes opted to trek to neighboring villages to find water. She used to walk down the mountain for one hour to the town of Limão, load a donkey with up to four jugs, and make the slow, two-hour return trip uphill.

“We have suffered a lot just to collect some water,” Domingos said.

In 2019, in response to this water crisis in northeast Brazil, Maranatha began drilling water wells in places where the organization has constructed churches. In December of 2019, Catuca received a new well. Alves no longer collects dirty water or spends hours waiting for drops to accumulate at the cacimba. Now, Domingos isn’t forced to choose whether her family will eat or if she must walk for hours each day. And something else is happening —communities are uniting around the Adventist Church.

Evangelical Christians in this area are often looked at with disdain. The stereotype is that many of these churches are known only for asking for donations. So when the Adventist church began offering free water in Catuca, residents found it hard to believe. One man said he hadn’t taken water from the Adventist well because he didn’t think it was for him. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that the well was open to the entire community.

Domingos is not an Adventist church member, and she knew little about the church before the well came. Now she regularly visits the church to collect water. Her children play on a small swing set in the shade of the church’s trees while she fills her jugs. She is getting to know the church members as she makes her daily trip for water.

“The well improves the image of the church,” Alves said. “People come for the water and then look around the church. They hold community meetings here, and the community is more comfortable. Some people start to accept invitations to church.”

The well is still a new concept in Catuca, and the church members are imagining how they might leverage this resource to connect with people on a deeper spiritual level. There are aspirations for a community garden and a water delivery service to the elderly. But what can already be seen is the new relationships being formed within the neighborhood.

Friendships are growing out of a common need. Wariness and skepticism are waning. Neighbors are meeting each other on common ground at the local Adventist church. A place previously unknown by community members now hosts them each day. Thirst, both physical and spiritual, is being quenched in the desert.

Maranatha has drilled 44 water wells in Brazil since 2019, and many more communities like Catuca are in need. Though these resilient people have managed to survive, this region of Brazil can be a harsh life. Maranatha has plans to continue drilling in that area to help as many communities as possible, paving the way for more souls to connect with the Wellspring of Life.

The original version of this story appeared in Maranatha Volunteers International’s The Volunteer magazine.