Cooperative Sanitation in Brazil’s Favelas

A New Solution for the Developing World


by | Dec 15, 2013

Photo of a corded city in Brazil, next to a mountain.

Many of Brazil’s favelas face a public health crisis. Community participation and affordable technology help make water accessible. Photo by Gregory Scruggs

Many of us who live in the developed world and in urban areas in the developing world would have a hard time imagining what it would be like to live in an area with open sewers, or no formal sewer facilities whatsoever. And yet, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation (JPM), an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide did not have access to improved sanitation as recently as 2010. Inadequate access to improved sanitation, and the resulting impacts on water quality, plague much of Latin America and the rest of the developing world.

The availability of sanitation facilities is very low throughout rural areas in several Latin American countries. Fewer than half of rural dwellers in Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, and Nicaragua have access to improved sanitation, and the same is true of urban residents in Bolivia.

Lack of access to sanitation has profound consequences. UNICEF reports that “[t]he combined effects of inadequate sanitation, unsafe water supply and poor personal hygiene are responsible for 88 percent of childhood deaths from diarrhea and estimated to cause over 3,000 child deaths per day.”

The illness and deaths from tainted water supplies that result from insufficient water treatment and sanitation are not only tragic. They are avoidable. The United Nations has set an ambitious Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of people living without access to clean drinking water and improved sanitation facilities by 2015. While global access to clean drinking water has already exceeded the MDG set for 2015, it is highly unlikely that it will meet the goal set for improved sanitation in developing countries. More than two and a half billion people globally still lack access to adequate sanitation.

Urban populations have increased rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades. Since 1990, the proportion of Latin Americans liv-ing in cities has increased from 70 percent to 80 percent. While it is true that living in more densely populated areas improves sanitary conditions in the long run, this kind of rapid influx often leaves city governments struggling to build adequate infrastructure for those who have moved there in search of improved economic prospects.

Success Stories in Brazil’s Favelas

When it comes to improved sanitation, there may be more than one way to provide both fresh drinking water and access to closed sewers to urban residents. Densely populated areas in cities throughout the world often rely on traditional systems of interconnected pipes buried deep underground. Some developing countries, though, are experimenting with less expensive alternatives that depend more on community participation and elbow grease. In our 2010 book Running Out of Water, my co-author Harvard Professor Peter Rogers and I explored the elements that made this approach successful—or not—in three different Brazilian communities.

Brazil faced a massive population influx into its major cities in the 1990s and 2000s. Many of these urban immigrants came from the countryside and crowded into favelas, slums that surrounded the urban core in many of the nation’s cities. These favelas often lacked sufficient access to clean water and improved sanitation, creating a dangerous mix of close quarters and increased opportunities for disease transmission.

Recognizing the public health crisis that was developing in many of its cities, Brazil’s federal government encouraged the adoption of the condominial system that was developed by engineer José Carlos Melo. Melo’s system relied on community participation as much as it did on affordable technology that was accessible to state and local governments throughout the country.

Unlike a traditional sewer and water system, only the mainline pipes are buried deep underground in a condominial network, and smaller pipes that connect to residences are placed much closer to the surface. Because residents were intricately involved in both designing and, in some cases, building the system, they knew where the pipes were and signed on to agreements that they were responsible for maintenance and repair of the system in their neighborhoods.

The benefits of the condominial system are manifold. First, this approach makes it much more affordable for a government to provide basic infrastructure to communities. Costs are lower because a large part of the cost involved in developing water and sewer systems rests in the deep trenching required in a traditional system. Second, in a condominial setup, the labor of residents is sometimes used to dig the trenches for pipes within a neighborhood. This resident involvement not only saves the government money, but it establishes a sense of community among neighborhood residents and creates a feeling of ownership for those who rely on the new system.

In Brazil and several Latin American countries, the relative success of this approach has varied widely, often depending on the degree of resident participation in the planning and implementation process. The more time and energy a government or utility spent on educating residents about the value of their involvement, the better the results.

In the outskirts of Brasilia, more than 57,000 residents attended 5,000 public meetings aimed at planning and implementing a condominial system that ultimately served half a million favela dwellers. The system that was adopted included elected representatives for each neighborhood, a collective design process for each block’s residents, and signed agreement with the utility from every participating household.

This level of success was not universally met. In Bahia, poor community outreach led to slow adoption of the condominial system and a much lower level of commitment among residents to maintain the system. In the northern Brazilian town of Parauapebas, the major mining company in town partnered with the local government to build a water treatment plant, and then residents contributed their labor, time, and money to bring treated waters into homes in the town.

The condominial system has been adopted in parts of Asia, and is a prime example of the creative thinking that will be required to reduce the deaths, illnesses, and economic losses associated with insufficient sanitation in much of rural Latin America.

Although the solutions are not always easy, in many cases they are relatively affordable. The key, as with so many challenges, is showing residents that they have the power to improve their destinies.

Winter 2013Volume XVI, Number 1

Susan Leal is a water utility consultant, the co-author of the book Running Out of Water. Formerly, she was the General Manager of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and San Francisco City and County Treasurer.

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