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Water shortages in the Pantanal’s headwaters: unthinkable?


It seems absurd that a region abundant in fresh water, located in the fertile headwaters of Brazil’s Pantanal, would face water supply problems, but this has become the sad reality for Tangará da Serra municipality.

In Tangará’s Triângulo District, for at least three months, hundreds of families have been without water. Water pumps have stopped working as water in the region’s reservoir has sunk below accessible levels.  Residents have been forced to improvise and store rainwater, or travel kilometres to fetch water from neighbouring communities.

Sunset over the PantanalSunset over the Pantanal

Reminiscent of the unprecedented water crisis in São Paulo in recent years, this problem is not only affecting domestic water access, it is also impacting on other local services, trades and businesses. Lessons were suspended in a local school due to the lack of water and restaurants have been resorting to preparing food using mineral water.

A problem of management

Abundant rainfall and water reserves do not ensure permanent immunity from water shortages. The situation in Tangará da Serra is an example of how poorly managed water resources can be disastrous, and why we should not be complacent about our most precious and vital natural resource.

The water shortage affects not only urban supply, but also agricultural and livestock production. In the Tangará region cattle and poultry farmers, as well as smallholder producers, depend on water from the local Queima-Pé River Basin for production.

As with the recent water crisis in São Paulo, the severity of the situation has been compounded by a lack of planning. The city was unprepared to face reduced rainfall at this scale. The local government took no action to replenish the flow of Queima-Pé River and its tributaries (the city’s drinking water reservoir). During the last six years the Sepotuba River Basin Committee gave suggestions on how to better prepare for these situations, but they were also ignored.

The Municipal Water and Sanitation Service (SAMAE) are building a reservoir to store one million cubic metres of water, due to be completed in January 2017. However, if normal flows in the Queima-Pé River do not increase there will be no water to store and this work will be pointless. So, what should be done?

The solution lies in planning

It is not possible to predict the rainfall, but forward planning and the adoption of simple mitigation measures can help avoid these sort of water shortages being endured. In the case of Tangará some possibilities include:

  • Promoting better rainwater filtration into the soil which would help replenish the water table that forms the Queima-Pé River Basin.
  • Improving rural dirt roads across the Queima-Pé River Basin, particularly those located in catchment areas of key springs. The poorly maintained rural roads cause rain water to run straight off the surface rather than filtering down into the soil to replenish the water table.
  • Relocating the outer road that cuts through the Queima-Pé River, near its springs.  Roads located near springs can lead to sedimentation and compromise the quality and quantity of water.
  • Constructing contour lines on farm properties in order to retain and promote rainwater filtration into the soil to replenish the water table.
  • Restoring riparian forests (areas of permanent preservation) along the Queima-Pé River.
  • Developing public policies to encourage water recycling and the construction of rainwater storage tanks.
Tangará Road ImprovementTangará Road Improvement

In this area there is an urgent need for drainage mechanisms to be installed in both urban and rural areas, to promote greater filtration of rainwater to the water table. There are low-cost, efficient methods available that prevent flooding in the city as well as excessive sediment from flowing into and contaminating rivers.

What is WWF doing?

WWF has been working with local communities, governments and businesses for five years in critical headwaters of the Pantanal establishing and promoting the Pantanal Pact. It’s an initiative that aims to conserve the rivers and springs of the Pantanal headwaters to help avoid the situation that Tangará are currently facing. To bring about the sorts of improvements highlighted here the measures need to be adopted and championed by public administrators.

We have already had successes in Tangará. The Pact has led to the improvement of 2.5km of local roads, the construction of 26km of contour lines in rural properties and the installation of 100 drainage mechanisms in properties surrounding the tributary of the Queima-Pé River. But it is clear that more work needs to be done to ensure these water challenges do not spread and can be avoided in the future.

It’s time to join hands: civil society, companies and the public sector, to collaborate and seek solutions. They are possible and available, but require everyone to assume a shared responsibility. When water shortages hit, everyone suffers. So every sector and individual stands to benefit from the protection of water resources and improved long-term water management.

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