The drought industry

True story accompanying image

Located in the North East of Brazil, Piauí is one of the country’s poorest states. It’s also one of the driest. With only a sliver of coastline, the majority of the region is landlocked and arid, and drought has reached emergency levels in 199 of the 224 districts. Federal money was allocated to improve the situation, but development has been patchy or non-existent. The reason, say local campaigners, is corruption. 

“The delay in the construction of water pipelines benefits the few who make money out of renting water trucks," says Arimatéia Dantas, coordinator of local citizen initiative A Forca Tarefa Popular, or the people’s taskforce.

Dantas calls the exploitation of water shortage a “drought industry”, and says that in some districts this lucrative business is used to secure a hold on power. “The places supplied by the trucks are determined by politicians,” he says, “At times, water supply is used as electoral currency.”

Together with organisations such as our Brazilian partner Amarribo Brasil, A Forca Tarefa Popular is battling against these abuses. Each year they lead a group of activists on a march through inland Piauí. Bearing flags and banners, participants trek for days across hot and dusty savannah to visit remote communities. Meeting with local people, they gather information on missing or abused resources, train citizens to track public spending, and support those who want to speak out against abuses.  

They’ve got a proven record of success. Back in 2008, they visited a small village that had been awarded a US$7,000 grant for plumbing infrastructure that had never been delivered. Tracking down the accountability reports for the responsible municipality, they helped villagers report the case to the public prosecutor. A few months later, fountains were built. Today, the community has access to water in their homes.

Travelling through the region in 2013, it’s clear there’s much work to do. Some people spoke of waiting years for facilities to appear, others said that water was only given to local government supporters. Yet energy for change is growing.

“We looked towards a hill and saw something we never imagined in the middle of the wilderness: a group of women and children holding large posters,” recalls Igor Oliveira, who took part in the march,We forgot how tired and sore we were and went to greet the villagers.”

This momentum is being driven by young people. “We want things to get better in our community,” said Cláudia*, a young teacher who attended a talk held by the marchers. “We want water, better education, infrastructure, health and sanitation.”

Having learnt how to advocate for their rights, Cláudia and her friends now want to form their own association to monitor public spending. Together with other NGOs, we’re helping her put the plan into action, and once it’s up and running, the group will join our network of Brazilian corruption-fighting associations. Like many we met, Cláudia is determined not to give up on Piauí, despite the difficulties. “I want to fight to change the situation,” she says, “I want to continue living in the village. This place is my life.”

*Name has been changed

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