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The pandemic shines a light on water and sanitation problems in Rio de Janeiro

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  • The pandemic shines light on water and sanitation problems in Rio Janeiro

The COVID-19 emergency is drawing new attention to access to water and sanitation in Brazil’s favelas. In Rio de Janeiro, with more than 24% of the population living in these informal settlements, lack of adequate water and sanitation means an increased risk during the pandemic, reports The Rio Times.

Access to water and sanitation services is a long standing issue for favela residents because they are irregular settlements. CEDAE, the Rio de Janeiro State Water and Sewerage Utility, requires proof of property ownership to provide services to residents. As an alternative, CEDAE may provide water to a central site in a community, to which residents connect themselves. Elsewhere, where CEDAE does not provide infrastructure to a favela, residents connect themselves directly to neighbouring areas to get water from the grid.

In this manner, although water access is nearly universal, it is provided informally, so there are issues with maintenance and shut-offs. Last January, a water crisis hit the city as residents had to cope with murky, smelly water, and favela’s residents particularly as they cannot afford to turn to bottled water. Protests increased the visibility of water issues, but water quality and scarcity problems continued in certain areas until early March, when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. After a survey done on March 18, the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office cautioned that irregular water access would have an impact on any efforts to contain the pandemic.

There are exceptions that do not depend on legal property ownership, but they depend on the intervention of state governments. Rubens Filho, from Trata Brasil Institute, a civil society organisation, said they are talking with CEDAE as well as SABESP (the state water utility of São Paulo) to address the situation: “We are trying to see how it would be possible to send tank trucks, rainwater cisterns, or any other alternative that can provide water to those in need, and fast.” On April 7, a court order asked SABESP to supply water to all favelas in São Paulo. CEDAE said in a note to RioOnWatch that more than 40 tank trucks had been activated.

Lack of adequate sanitation also contributes to poor health in favela residents. A 2018 study by Trata Brasil showed more than 230,000 hospitalizations due to waterborne diseases in Brazil that year, many of which could have been prevented with access to clean water.

The authorities have promised to address water issues in favelas for years, but the inaction has led to frustration and distrust. Data analyst from Data-Labe Juliana Marques highlights the need for a budget that includes structural water and sanitation works: “What is happening today regarding the pandemic can be a great opportunity. We cannot lose sight of this in the post-crisis period. The debate needs to resurface with the same intensity.”

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