Teresa Silva and her daughter Marina Alice

Teresa Silva and her daughter

Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

'Sometimes in favelas we go a week without water'

We speak to a woman from Fazendinha in Rio about the reality of sanitation in her favela and the impact of COVID-19 on her young family 

By Thaís Cavalcante in brazil 
TRANSLATION: DANIEL AVELAR
14 DECEMBER 2020

Teresa Silva, 33, lives with her husband Rafael, their five-year-old daughter, Marina Alice, and her 86-year-old grandmother. They live in Fazendinha, one of the 14 favelas in Complexo do Alemão, in the North of Rio. Teresa is studying at university and was working as a teacher at her daughter’s nursery, but the pandemic has changed everything. She and her husband (a forklift truck driver) both lost their jobs and instead had to start selling meat from a street stall, to provide an income for their family.


Even before the pandemic, the water supply to her favela was unreliable. When the taps suddenly run dry, Teresa and her neighbours are always given a variety of excuses from Rio’s state-owned water company - problems with leaking pipes are blamed, among other issues. The poor service means many favela residents are entitled to discounts on their water bills.


Teresa Silva

All photos of Teresa Silva by Gabriel Loiola

‘When I don’t have water, I ask my neighbours to fill my buckets,’ says Teresa. ‘Sometimes we spend a week without water, but usually the taps are dry two days a week. When there’s no water at home, we end up bathing our daughter at her nursery. Weekends are a problem, because we can’t use the nursery facilities then.

 

‘If lots of houses face water shortages at once, we all organise to pay for a tank truck that sells clean water. The service costs R$400 (approximately £60) which amounts to nearly a third of Brazil’s minimum wage. The sum is split between our neighbours. When it comes to mineral water for drinking, each family buys their own.’

Water shortages

On the days when water reaches the hills of Complexo do Alemão, one of the largest clusters of favelas in Rio, every minute counts. Teresa rushes to wash her family’s dirty laundry, because she doesn’t know how long it’ll be before she gets the chance again.


She has a small outdoor space at the back of her two-bedroomed house used to wash the family’s laundry (either via a washing machine or by hand). But whenever a storm comes, it floods with rainwater. Teresa recalls, years ago, that before building a wall in her backyard, it used to flood with foul-smelling sewerage, running down the slope from her neighbour’s homes.

Teresa Silva holding her daughter Marina Alice

When the taps in her home do work, Teresa stores the precious water in 200-litre barrels and multiple buckets. That water has to be used not only to do the laundry, but for every other basic need, including preparing food and bathing. Water consumption is carefully rationed because it needs to last for several days.


Teresa’s only alternative is to walk down the hill carrying the laundry to wash it at her daughter’s house, located 1.2km away in the lower part of Complexo do Alemão. She often goes there to fill up extra water containers too, to avoid running short.

According to the 2020 Inequality Map, a study by Casa Fluminense, a public policy network, only 63% of Rio de Janeiro’s residents have their sewage collected and treated. The authorities have been reluctant to invest in basic sanitation including sewerage and water treatment. Tap water isn’t safe to drink in most areas of Brazil, but especially in favelas, so residents need to use a water filter or buy gallons of mineral water, like Teresa.

Handwashing and COVID-19

On top of their daily struggles, the Silva family was caught off guard by Covid-19. Teresa and her husband had all the symptoms, and so did her cousin. They did everything they could to try and get tested, they were put on a waiting list but were never given an appointment. While the couple were sick, they isolated themselves from Theresa’s grandmother, who stayed in her bedroom for most of the time. All of their neighbours in the favela faced similar issues when trying to self-isolate in small spaces.

Our journalist Thais Cavalcante who also lives in a Rio favela

Our journalist Thais Cavalcante who also lives in a Rio favela

During the peak of the pandemic, most of us in favelas were aware of the main precautions to avoid getting infected by COVID-19: handwashing – with hand sanitiser or water and soap; social distancing; wearing a mask and so on. Vehicles with megaphones spread information on the streets, shops put up signs with prevention tips and social media was filled with posts on the subject.

The biggest problems in favelas were a deteriorating access to basic rights - a lack of water for handwashing and the need to work, forcing us into crowded urban spaces. All these factors combine to make us more vulnerable to the virus. After more than 160 years of life in the favelas, we continue to fight for the same issues. Only now, in a pandemic, things are even harder.

A political denial

Brazil’s president Bolsonaro adopted a denialist approach to the pandemic, calling it a ‘little flu’ and ‘hysteria’ – and his supporters immediately followed his lead. In the favelas, the use of masks dropped considerably after one of his televised speeches. The president also appeared in public without a mask and promoted unproven medical treatments. Months later, Bolsonaro himself got infected with COVID-19.

Since the re-opening of the economy, life continues in the city largely because favela residents were the first to return to work. They are the housekeepers, the bus drivers and the street cleaners that make the city a cleaner and more functional space. But this doesn’t stop us from fearing COVID-19, which continues to infect Brazilians, especially those who live in the favelas. Brazil is one of the worst affected countries in the world, with over 175,000 deaths from the virus so far.

According to the Unified Panel on COVID-19 in Rio’s Favelas, there have been over 25,000 cases of coronavirus in the city’s favelas. The Maré cluster of favelas, where I live, is at the top of the list with nearly 2000 infections. The map, which was organised by grassroots groups and activists using public data, tells us the situation remains dire.

Fighting inequality

Paulo Mota Medeiros, an epidemiologist specialising in collective health at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, believes it’s essential the inequalities in the city are tackled.
 
‘In order to address the sanitation crisis, we first need to better educate the population about their rights. Then, we need to pressure the authorities so they start giving equal attention to elite neighbourhoods and the favelas,’ he says. ‘Also, the members of the elite should become aware that healthcare is not an individual problem, but a collective issue. If a rich neighbourhood has proper sewage and water, but a nearby favela does not, everyone will suffer because it is the workers living in those impoverished areas who provide essential services to the rich.’
 
International organisations have been focusing on warning about the importance of handwashing and social distancing. But the priority in Rio’s favelas has been fighting to keep people’s jobs, surviving with dwindling income and facing the increased lack of water and sanitation. These challenges already existed, but they’ve got worse with the global pandemic.
 
Our reality is that of multiple people crowded in small spaces, living in homes without sewage treatment or access to drinking water. In a pandemic we know we are the most vulnerable, but we will not stop fighting.

Thais's story...

Thais jumping over a pool of water as a child

Thais near her home, photo by Rio Gandara

'My parents had to go out and fill buckets with water every morning'

In my house, located in the Maré cluster of favelas, now we have running water, but that wasn’t always the case. My parents remember that back in the 1980s, when they first moved to Rio, having access to water was a privilege of people living outside the favelas.

At 5am, every day, they had to get up to walk to a public tap several streets away, each of them carrying two big buckets. They’d queue up with their neighbours waiting to fill their buckets, each family’s share of water being carefully rationed.

My father bought a house made out of wood, demolished it and rebuilt it with bricks and cement. At first the toilet was just a non-flushing loo placed over a pit with no plumbing. Like the rest of our house, it wasn’t connected to any water supply. By the time I was born in 1994, we had plumbing and a flushing toilet. The tap water still isn’t safe to drink in Rio, so we use water filters at home to avoid contamination.

My parents have told me how Maré residents had to work together to overcome these hardships over the years, and through campaigning as a community, they eventually gained access to basic human rights like running water and safe toilets. That’s why nowadays my parents are so grateful for the constant access to water in their taps and their shower. But still, this isn’t a reality for many families, as it should be.

Family with new Hygiene Station from #TOGETHERBAND and Harpic

New Hygiene Station from #TOGETHERBAND and Harpic

TAKE THE TOGETHER FOR HEALTH PLEDGE FOR CLEAN WATER AND SANITATION HERE…

Harpic has been carrying out some incredible work to protect the world’s poorest communities from COVID-19. Harpic recently delivered 450 tonnes of bottled water to half a million people in Brazil, 25,000 products to disinfect toilets and 75,000 fabric masks to reduce the spread of infection.

To build on this vital work, Harpic and #TOGETHERBAND are installing five Hygiene Stations for the most vulnerable communities in Brazil providing long-term access to running water and helping change lives in the process. Our aim is to ensure as many people as possible can have clean hands, clean homes and clean water. So we’re calling on you to support our Clean Water and Sanitation pledge to provide the means urgently needed to make our work possible. You can donate here.