In the North region, only 60% of the inhabitants have full access to drinking water (Tarso Sarraf)

The water paradox in the Amazon

In the region of giant rivers, the abundance of water is as intense as its waste. Researchers point out ways to manage this precious resource.

Eduardo Laviano

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


Established in 1992, The World Water Day – celebrated on the March 22nd – is an attempt to bring awareness to humanity regarding the responsible use of water resources.

It’s not by chance: in the Amazon, for example, the abundance of water is as great as its waste. In the North of Brazil, where seven of the nine states of the Legal Amazon are located, the waste rate jumped from 46.5% in 2014 to 55.5% in 2018, according to data from the National Sanitation Information System. 

It means that for every 10 liters of water distributed by supplying companies, whether they be State or private, only 4.5 liters actually reach the taps, while the rest is left behind due to structural problems of basic sanitation. This percentage is much higher than the national average of 38.5%.

Data from 2021 and provided by Ministry of Integration and Regional Development show that only 60% of the inhabitants of the Northern region of Brazil have full access to drinking water. 

The national average reaches 84.2%, while in the South and Southeast regions, the supply rate exceeds 91%. 

According to Carlos Alexandre Bordalo, geographer and doctor in Sustainable Development, these figures establish a paradox. 

In his opinion, poor management of supply services in such a rich region regarding fresh and potable water accentuates social vulnerabilities. 

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Poor management of supply services maximize social vulnerabilities, says Carlos Alexandre Bordalo

"Data from various reports on water availability indicate cities in the Amazon with less access to drinking water than cities in the Northeast of Brazil, for example. In some municipalities in Amazonas and Amapá, water waste levels reach 70%. That means, there is little concern about investing in infrastructure in these municipalities, so that water reaches everyone", argues the professor from the Faculty of Geography and Cartography at the Federal University of Pará.

Bordalo also points out that there are different levels of water scarcity: in addition to water scarcity, which is not having access to running water at home, many cities in the Amazon suffer from relative scarcity, which is not having access to water 24 hours a day. 

"We think that this is an inland problem, but it is a common situation in urban areas, such as Belém, Ananindeua, Marituba and Santarém. And there is still a shortage of quality water, when it does not reach potability standards", it says.

The researcher points out several bottlenecks: there is a lack of robust investments in poorer regions and the applicability of the National Basic Sanitation Policy, established in 2007, is still precarious.

According to Bordalo, it is necessary to demand better governance over water resources in the Amazon. 

He recalls that, every year, data from the Trata Brasil Institute always classify cities in the Amazon among the worst when it comes to basic sanitation. In 2022, for example, at the top of the list were cities from the region: Macapá, in Amapá, appears first, followed by Porto Velho, Santarém, Rio Branco, Belém and Ananindeua. 

"It is a disappointing and shameful paradox for the Brazilian Amazon. Water is a right, not a favour", emphasizes Bordalo.


The water element exists in nature for billions of years, but thinking of ​​water, primarily, as a product that should be sold is a human invention and relatively recent, but it has lasted at least for 500 years.

The Industrial Revolution, in the 18th century, accelerated the process causing water to enter the capitalist production system for good and to become a resource with value, but also without any kind of control in relation to its own finitude.

According to researcher Nírvia Ravena, it took time for humanity to understand that water and its use are part of a complex and interdependent system, which involves climate, forests and the species that inhabit the Earth. 

She points out that the concept of water as a finite resource was more evident in countries of the East and on the African continent, where scarcity was more common. 

"Until the 1970s, in the United States, it was an absolutely invisible problem, even from an institutional point of view. But academic studies on the subject gradually gained strength, as well as the environmental movement.  

According to Ravena, who holds a PhD in Political Science and is a professor at the Nucleus of High Amazonian Studies at the Federal University of Pará, this context shed light on the use of water, on agriculture, on the issue of conscious consumption, and the problem started to be viewed more seriously due to the impacts of climate change.

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Many riverside communities experience lack of drinking water

She believes, however, that the Amazon should be better contemplated in this debate, since it is a key factor in the planet's global balance system, especially when the issue is ‘water’ and rainfall distribution. 

The subject, however, only gains strength when the news shows that the Southeast region of Brazil is going through a water crisis. 

"The origins of these crises may be natural, but there are also unnatural crises, caused by agricultural and industrial activities. The dependence on the Amazon region to generate electricity for the entire country was responsible for an accentuated scenario of water vulnerability, which affected the population of Lago de Tucuruí in 2014. In summary, even though the Amazon is the depository of the largest volume of fresh water on the planet, the governance of the water resources in the region has been flawed. Regional differences are, therefore, highlighted with the Southeast region making wasteful use of these resources, while the Amazon region produces hydroelectric energy submissive to the needs of the rest of the country, thus facing vulnerabilities", she asserts.

Regional Agencies

Ravena also points out that Brazil made a mistake in respect to water regulation: according to her, the creation of the National Water Agency overcentralized the management of Brazilian water resources in Brasília. 

According to the researcher, the ideal would be for each river basin to have its own agency for closer management and connection with the people who depend on the water in each region. 

She recalls that the population, especially native and riverside peoples, must be co-producers of public policies. 

She also considers that the interests of private capital are always a priority in the formation of laws and this encourages predatory behavior in relation to water and the forest.

"I believe that the resumption of this discussion by the basin agencies would be very important. On the other hand, I do not believe a strategic and efficient planning would be possible, if we do not listen to the traditional populations. Without this dialogue, it will be very difficult to avoid the intensification of the frequent of crises The quality of the freshwater volume is already compromised. There are already quilombolas in Acará without access to water, dozens of regions of the Amazon suffering from polluted water. It is a scenario that needs immediate reversal", says Ravena.

Regenerating urban rivers is an urgent challenge

The Amazon is a large, sparcely populated and undeveloped region, where there are diverse environmental and topographic characteristics. 

This scenario affects the water quality, according to Sávio Ferreira, a researcher at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon. 

He adverts that different rivers have very different waters. The black water in Rio Negro contains a lot of organic matter and humid substances, almost distilled and scarce in salts. 

The water in Solimões River, contains a lot of sediment, but is almost neutral and full of nutrients and substance. 

There is also the water of Tapajós River, much more acidic than the others, but super nutritious.

 "There are different kinds of river water, but, on average, our water maintains good characteristics when coming from the rivers. The main problem in the Amazon is that there is a large part of the population using underground water here, with our urban courses contaminated", he says.

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Most populous Amazonian cities, such as Belém, evolved with their backs tuned to the rivers (Tarso Sarraf)

Ferreira explains that most cities are developed due to the rivers, however, in the Amazon, the large urban masses developed turning their backs to them. 

In Manaus, for example, many people used urban rivers as part of their daily lives, whether for services, transportation, leisure or consumption. 

The arrival of the Tax-Free Zone increased disorderly urban growth, so while the city expanded the urban rivers became progressively more polluted until they became open sewers. The situation is similar in Belém.

"Sanitation here is not enough to fulfill the demand. The water courses need to be restored to their original conditions to serve the population. There is plenty of successful cases around the world, such as in South Korea or even the Thames River, in London. Urban rivers with their original features restored, that now, even have fish. We know that the cost is very high, but society needs to consider water courses in cities as benefits, not as open sewers. Everything was being degraded and revitalization is one of the great challenges to fight the water crisis and preserve water", says Ferreira

Hydroelectric power plants

Journalist Thiago Medaglia is the director of Ambiental Media, a project that combines journalism and science and that conceived the Impact Index on Amazonian Waters. 

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Thiago Medaglia points out that 20% of the micro-basins in the Amazon suffer an impact classified as high

According to data from the project, out of the 11,216 micro-basins in the Amazon, 2,299 (20%) have an impact considered as high. 

And there are hydroelectric plants in the five most impacted ones. 

Those regions are also often linked to prospecting and mining operations. 

There are rising reports from fishermen about the gradually decreasing supply of fish for consumption and commerce, which affects the food security of riverside people and their subsistence resources.

 According to the same reference index, of the 1,146 micro-basins with high, very high or extreme impact, 478 also suffer the impacts of mining activity (21%). 

"When the data are overlapped, we realize how much they are interconnected. There is nothing more impactful for a river and for the surrounding community than a large dam", says Medaglia.


Rain is the solution to large-scale reuse

In 2007, Ronaldo Mendes encountered a rainwater collecting cistern in Ilha Grande, near the municipality of Barcarena, in Pará. 

It was a concrete cistern, placed on the ground and supplied directly from a roof. The water accumulated there was used by several families on the island and even by a school. 

Curiosity about that solution was tattooed in his memory and interest in the subject only grew higher over the years. 

Now, besides being a professor at the Environment Center at the Federal University of Pará, Ronaldo is also chair of the Brazilian Association for Rainwater Capture and Management, an entity dedicated to encouraging the reuse of water.

Mendes joined other academic researchers to create the Rainwater Reusing in the Amazon Group, which became gradually closer to the community, promoting improvements in cisterns based on research on materials, structure and water quality. The research group also installed a cistern in Murutucu Island.

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"Many people here in the Amazon do not have drinking water available. And rainwater is easy to turn into drinking water. At the time, we recommended filtering and disinfecting it, using chlorine and boiling it. From that moment on, we discovered that it could solve the problem of millions of people in the Amazon, since most regions have a lot of rainfall throughout the year. This could help some regions that are drier, such as those in western Pará, because water can be stored for the less rainy months, that already occurs in the Brazilian Northeast on a large scale, where some municipalities reach 10 months of access to water via cistern", he highlights.

Ronaldo lists several benefits ensuing from that method, since rainwater can be used in various domestic activities. 

In addition, it prevents riverside people from going to rivers carrying water and also replaces the installation of pumps in the river. 

Communities also save money because they buy less water. However, even if there is plenty of advantages, incentives are lacking. 

He argues that governments should come together to invest in a broad program to build cisterns in the Amazon. 

Civil society has contributed every way it can and there are successful projects throughout the Amazon, such as Sanear Amazônia, which has already benefited 2,800 families, and the Cisterna Escolar project, in Abaetetuba, Pará, which installed cisterns in 72 urban and rural schools.

"The Federal Rural University of the Amazon also has a project in Ilha das Onças and the Mamirauá Institute also works providing cisterns in the Amazon. These are isolated experiments that need to be expanded with government help. It is a great example of social technology, not focusing on profiting using the water, instead, the focus is on social well-being", says the researcher.