What role did water play in your (choice of) education and what profession do you pursue with such a diverse and profound knowledge and skillset?
Water has been present in my formal education since high school. I have a technical degree in chemistry and during this period I understood the physicochemical properties of water. Later, during the years I spent at the university to become an environmental engineer, I had the opportunity to study how this resource interacts with other natural and non-natural elements, as well as the role water plays in society, economics, and politics.
Within the water sector, water supply and sanitation and how that impacts every aspect of people’s lives caught my attention. In Brazil, there is still a significant gap to ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation, especially in more vulnerable areas. I saw that as an opportunity to contribute to the development of my country.
My first experience as a young professional was collaborating in the construction of the rural water and sanitation program of Brazil. Together with a team, we conducted interviews and focus groups in rural areas aimed at identifying technologies and service management models to support the draft of the program. Later, I worked at the national level, in a more strategic position when I supported the Brazilian National Health Foundation (Funasa) in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects and programs.
After 3 years working at Funasa, I decided to take a step forward in my career. I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainable Territorial Development. Once more, water stands out when it comes to building a fairer society. Ensuring the sustainability of water resources in a fast-paced changing world is one of the most important challenges for the coming years. Population and economic growth have been leading to greater water demand. Global warming is already having a measurable effect on the water cycle. Those changes threaten water and food security, biodiversity, prosperity, and peace. In this context, my career goal is contributing to support different stakeholders to integrate these relevant issues in their plans and decision-making processes.
Having worked for a regional health organization assisting a National Health Foundation in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of water and sanitation projects and programs, what do you consider relevant in terms of the relation of water and health. What are the gaps that need to be addressed? Can space technology contribute to achieving those gaps?
The current sanitary crisis has exposed that a significant amount of people are not able to implement an action as simple as hand washing because they do not have access to clean water. Therefore, lack of access to safe water remains the biggest challenge. However, it is crucial to understand the reasons behind that. Although water scarcity might be the first limiting factor that comes to one’s mind, there may be several aspects that prevents people accessing their rights to clean water and sanitation. For instance, in Brazil, the region with the greatest water availability in the country has the worst indices in terms of adequate water supply. Lack of infrastructure, poor management services, inability to afford the costs, poor water resource planning and management, and water pollution also explain why people do not have access to clean water.
Space technology, especially freely available Earth Observation data can contribute to closing this gap by helping to overcome sparse and unreliable information for water resources monitoring and management. However, it is crucial to build local capacity in the use of data and tools to benefit from space technologies. I believe that initiatives such as Space4water has contributed to address this need.
What do you consider as key elements to achieve mutual understanding on sustainable water resource management between various stakeholder groups? Can the needs of all groups be taken fairly taken into account, and if so, how?
Water management today is faced with new challenges such as climate change and the increasing pressure for freshwater leading to difficult decisions on water allocation. Achieving mutual understanding on how manage this resource, especially in water-scarce regions, is a real challenge for decision-makers. I consider that an intersectoral, integrated and participatory approach can bring stakeholders together to reconcile their different interests and build collective solutions. Nevertheless, distinct groups have different levels of interest and engagement according to available information and the power to influence the decision-making-process. To overcome unbalanced representativeness, it is necessary to create mechanisms, such as the catchment management committee, a forum in which representatives of the different groups of a river basin discuss and deliberate on the management of water resources, sharing responsibilities with the government.
You have organised and moderated workshops as well as conducted interviews with a thematic focus on rural water and sanitation. Do you have the impression rural population’s needs are sufficiently addressed by decision makers and water management policies? What are the common gaps in rural water supply and sanitation? Can you elaborate on your experience?
There is a significant gap between the access to water supply and sanitation services by urban and rural populations. In Brazil, while 98.6% of urban households have suitable access to drinking water and 68% have access to appropriate sanitation infrastructure, in rural areas the statistics drops to 76.5% and 40%, respectively. During the time I spent in rural communities in Brazil, those numbers became my reality for about 45 days. This experience made me understand how privileged I was for always having had access to safe water and sanitation services.
When compared to the urban environment, rural areas present some particularities imposing challenges for the implementation of projects. For instance, the low population density makes the construction of traditional distribution networks for drinking water and sewage collection and treatment unviable. In regions where water is abundant, it is quite common to have its own water source, such as springs and water wells, located in the property. Because engineering services are not available or very expensive in villages, the residents from rural areas develop alternative ways to find water. In one of the communities I visited with my team, a local showed us a traditional technique they have used for years to find the right spot to drill using a branch from a specific tree.
It is also important to highlight the lower capacity of the rural population to pay for water supply and sanitation services. This makes these areas less attractive for investments than urban areas, which historically have been the focus of public and private interventions. Moreover, local governments lack the technical and managerial skills to meet rural demands. To overcome those challenges and to properly address the specificities of the Brazilian rural areas, a national program was developed: the National Rural Sanitation Program (PNSR).
Which role does gender play in Brazil when it comes to water security? Which role do women play in water resource management in the region? What are the gaps to be addressed?
I consider that, in Brazil, women play a very important role in water resource management in rural areas, from the household to the decision-making level. When it comes to water security, in regions where water is not available at the household level, usually women and children are in charge of ensuring water supply, because this is seen as a domestic activity. Moreover, since women are the main water users within the family, being responsible for cooking, cleaning, child hygiene, etc., they deal with the issues related to water quantity and quality.
At the local, regional, and national level, the construction of the National Rural Environmental Sanitation Program (PNSR) highlighted the role women play in the WASH sector in Brazil. I had the privilege of meeting important leaders from rural Brazilian communities who are fighting for universal access to water and sanitation. I could discuss with researchers who developed low-cost sanitation solutions for riverside communities in the Amazonian region, and work together with the PNSR coordination team, which was led by women. Moreover, in my experiences in other Latin American countries, I have also noticed the prominent role of women in the sector.
Which water-related effects of climate change can be observed in Brazil? Which regions and people are affected the most, do you see any immediate action that can be / needs to be taken?
Because of its continental dimensions and diversity, Brazil is susceptible to the most varied types of natural disaster such as floods, landslides, and droughts. Besides the influence of climate change, lack of infrastructure together with inefficient land use planning and occupation aggravates the effects of extreme weather events. For instance, highly urbanized and densely populated regions are the most affected by flooding. In this context, poor families living on steep slopes or riversides are particularly vulnerable and the least able to recover.
Some adaptive measures that can help to alleviate human and economic costs are infrastructure to prevent or reduce flooding, effective urban planning, and reducing the vulnerability of exposed populations. Nevertheless, those are long term actions that demand continuous investment over successive governments. On the other hand, space-based observation offers short-term and effective means to risk assessment, simulation models, forecasting, early warning systems, monitoring and damage assessment. Moreover, new technologies and open data and software are becoming increasingly available and often easy to apply. The combination of both, short- and long-term measures are fundamental to build climate and disaster resilience.
What do you consider the biggest challenges to be solved in water resource management? Can space technologies contribute to solving it?
Ensuring sustainable water allocation and building climate and disaster resilience arise as the biggest challenges for the next decades. The successful implementation and monitoring of initiatives to face these challenges requires access to reliable data and information on water related issues. Space technologies and Earth-observation data has the potential to close this gap. For instance, they can provide information on surface water extent, volume and quality.
As someone with experience in both, remote sensing and water resource management, how often have you used remote sensing technology in your water-related work, what was the value added, and what were the challenges? Are there any user requirements of the water sector in terms of space technology and its usability that have not been sufficiently addressed by the space sector?
I have not used remote sensing technologies in the projects that I had been involved in so far, but one of the most important requirements that an end user would be interested in based on my experience would be the access to open data, and the tools and skills to deal with it. In a big country like Brazil, where the regions are unequally developed, having access to reliable data and information to support decision-making at the national level can be a real challenge. I believe space technologies and Earth-observation have the potential to address this need.
Last, but not least, what is your favourite aggregate state of water?
Liquid water. I have always been fascinated by the sea.