A shower: an unattainable dream for 36 million Latin Americans

January 6, 2015


Every day, Jane Fernandes spends at least an hour and a half fetching water from a tank supplied by the Brazilian army

Mariana Kaipper Ceratti/World Bank

The water shortage in northeastern Brazil and other places means having to choose between cooking and washing dishes

Twice a week, María Dilvânia and seven other members of the Caraúbas women’s association in Rio Grande do Norte, in Brazil’s northeast, meet to bake sweets. None of their recipes requires water. “We’ve substituted it with fruit pulp or milk,” she says, proudly.

On a normal day, in the small kitchen they share, the women make 25 different types of cakes, bread and other sweets of coconut, cassava and other flavors, which they sell to neighbors.

Recently, however, it has become more difficult to maintain production levels. For three years now, this semi-arid rural settlement has been in a drought and there is not enough rain to fill household tanks. What is worse, there is no water source other than that the army delivers weekly, which means that Caraúbas women are forced to make increasingly difficult decisions.

"Water is necessary for washing cups as well as for the work to enlarge our kitchen. We are saving it so there will be enough for the house, the family and the flock,” said Dilvânia. Like her neighbors, she leaves home early every day to fill up the 10 water cans given to each family.

If there is no water, the women cannot bake more cake and the women’s association cannot increase its earnings. Families end up depending almost exclusively on the payment from the Bolsa Familia Program, harvest insurance (which protects farmers against crop losses) and retirement funds, three of the main social benefits provided by the Brazilian government.

Grey water

The plight of the Caraúbas bakers is just one example of the challenges facing 36 million people in Latin America and another 748 million around the world. Water shortages mean that every day, people have to choose between cooking and washing dishes, or between bathing and washing clothes.

With climate change, the lack of rain – and supply of water – tends to worsen in the driest areas of the globe. “Northeast Brazil is particularly impacted by El Niño-related droughts; these may become more frequent in a 4°C world,” according to the World Bank report Turn Down the Heat, Confronting the New Climate Normal.

With so many limitations, any water supply project must ensure that people use the water network as efficiently as possible.


When there is no water, Maria Dilvânia has to use milk or fruit pulp to make cakes

Mariana Kaipper Ceratti/World Bank

" Even with the investments already made, many rural families still have a demand for water "

Fatima Amazonas

World Bank rural development expert

The good news for the bakers and other local women is that they will not have to wait for the rainy season to have access to water. The town will finally have a regular water supply through a piped network to be implemented between September and December 2015.

"Forty-three local families will have the possibility of running water, which will enable them to plant home vegetable gardens and sell surplus produce in the market. Women will be able to continue with their activities,” said Ana Guedes, executive director of the Río Grande of the Sustainable North project, a joint program of the Brazilian government and the World Bank.

Moreover, families will learn to take advantage of shower or toilet water, which specialists refer to as “grey water.”

It is a lesson that the wealthiest regions of Brazil, such as Sao Paulo, are learning from their own experience since drought and water shortages are not only a problem for northeastern Brazil, but increasingly, for large urban areas.

A weight off their shoulders

A similar initiative, completed in 2010, gave 53,000 families access to potable water in several communities of Rio Grande do Norte. The social impact was immediate and significant.

Women in those communities – who were previously responsible for fetching water in enormous cans – no longer have that burden; therefore, they can now spend more time working or playing with their children. A study in 20 communities found that household income increased by 30% as a result of the initiative.

“Even with the investments already made, many rural families still have a demand for water,” said Fátima Amazonas, a rural development expert at the World Bank. She added that the new project to bring water to Caraúbas will also help to recover the environment and provide training to farmers.

Thanks to these possibilities, Jane Fernandes, a 27-year-old mother of two, is feeling hopeful. Every day, Jane spends at least an hour and a half fetching water from the tank supplied by the army. “My dream is that the water will finally come and I can finish my studies to give my daughters a better life,” said Jane. And to take a shower, of course.