The approval of the legal framework for basic sanitation, in 2020, and the debates on the subject that should take place in the coming months, under the Lula government, highlight the initiatives in this field throughout the country’s history.
Since colonial Brazil, a sinuous path has been noted, in which unsuccessful bets and omissions prevail. Wasted opportunities help explain the country’s position in a recently released global ranking of treated water and sewage supply, with data from Unicef and the WHO (World Health Organization).
The supply of drinking water reaches 86% of the population, which puts Brazil in 85th position in a ranking of 137 countries. Treated sewage reaches 49% of Brazilians, which makes us 76th out of 129 countries.
Eight specialists —some from academia, others from the private sector— contribute to this attempt to tell the story of basic sanitation in the country, divided into five chapters.
1 – The wastewater tigers
In the urban centers of the colonial period, one of the obligations of the enslaved was to fetch clean water from the rivers and take it in pots or jugs to their masters. It was also up to them to collect the “waste water”, as the sewage was called at the time, in the houses and dump it away from there.
“Domestic waste was deposited in barrels stored at the back of houses and businesses. Or in open ditches or covered by flagstones, although prohibited by inspection. The disobedient black slaves and the unemployed white population […] were ‘punished’ with the function of transporting, almost always at night, these barrels of waste to the disposal areas”, write Aspásia Camargo and Márcio Santa Rosa about Rio de Janeiro in the book “A Epopeia do Saneamento”.
In the 18th century, the city witnessed the construction of the greatest engineering work seen so far in the colony. Completed in 1723, the Carioca Aqueduct carried water from Morro do Desterro (now Santa Teresa) to downtown Rio. Much later, that structure came to be known as Arcos da Lapa.
At that time, places like Rio and São Paulo gained their first networks of fountains, giving their residents easier access to drinking water. In other cities, such as Salvador, these fountains only started to be built during the 1800s.
“There were no pumping mechanisms, as we have today. Therefore, the best solution was sought so that the water would go from the highest points to the lowest, making derivations in the fountains”, explains Edison Carlos, president of the Aegea Institute, arm socioenvironmental of the Aegea Group, one of the main private sanitation companies in Brazil.
The water infrastructure was undergoing a renovation phase, but the workload had changed little. It was still the enslaved who carried water to the houses, now taken from the fountains, and found a way to get rid of the waste, dumping it in rivers or ditches.
Taken in barrels, the excrement often contained substances such as ammonia, which, when splashed on the black skins, left white marks. Due to the formation of these patches, women and men entrusted with this heavy duty began to be called “tigers” or “tigres”. Places like São Paulo and Recife maintained this type of work until the 1880s.
Evidently, the populations of these cities coexisted with mosquitoes and bad smell, especially in the port areas. Passing through Salvador in 1832, on the Beagle expedition, Charles Darwin was amazed by the landscape, but recorded in his diary the stench of Cidade Baixa.
2 – The sanitary emperor
So far, we are dealing with a kind of prehistory of this theme, in the view of scholars such as Denise Tedeschi, a historian specialized in urban life in Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries. in basic sanitation in Brazil.
At that moment, the country was facing new conditions, which demanded answers from the public authorities: cities were growing denser; exports intensified, an advance that forced the ports to respect minimum hygiene conditions; and, above all, disease outbreaks, such as yellow fever, became more and more frequent.
“The engineers of the 19th century began to think about the flow of water in order to preserve the salubrity of urban centers. The relationship between supplying and disposing of water then became a central issue for these specialists”, says Tedeschi.
It is in this context that Dom Pedro 2nd took a relevant decision for Rio, then capital. To understand the pioneering vision of the monarch, it is necessary to know a little about what was happening in London.
Poor hygiene conditions, with fetid public roads, led to outbreaks of cholera, which caused waves of deaths in the British capital, especially from the 1830s onwards. Thanks to the actions of leaders such as Edwin Chadwick and the discoveries of physicians such as John Snow, London managed to carry out a wide sanitary reform, which included measures such as the opening of large and extensive underground channels, connected to modern sewage treatment plants.
In the words of Aspásia Camargo, a sociologist who served as executive secretary of the Ministry of the Environment during the FHC government, this is “the revolution that governs the transition from barbarism to civilization”.
Because of the emperor’s perspicacity, Rio became, she says, one of the first cities outside the United Kingdom to adopt these engineering innovations. “Dom Pedro 2º was a sanitary emperor. He promised that he would make a big change in this area and he kept his promise”, she says.
Under his reign, the government signed a contract with the City, an English privately held company, and in 1850 began preparations for a reformulation of the city’s infrastructure. The first complete sanitary sewage system was inaugurated in the Glória neighborhood 14 years later.
In this area, therefore, Brazil managed to get closer to the United Kingdom at that point. But the distance between them only widened in the following decades. The ranking of treated sewage prepared by the WHO in partnership with Unicef shows the British in 11th position, far ahead of the 76th place that we Brazilians occupy. In other words, we did not know how to take advantage of Pedro II’s pioneering spirit.
City remained at the head of these operations in Rio from 1957 to 1947. In São Paulo, this evolution occurred in a different way.
According to the 1872 census, the capital of São Paulo had 31 thousand inhabitants, which represented only 11% of the population of Rio, with 275 thousand. Although the dimensions were very different, some situations in the two cities were similar and tested the patience of public opinion, as shown in a record from October 1862.
“The remedy for this state of affairs could not be added. It is time to cry out loudly that the people demand water [grafia da época]”, published the newspaper Correio Paulistano.
Like Rio in the second half of the 19th century, São Paulo was forced to supplant the network of fountains. The government of São Paulo encouraged Brazilian and foreign shareholders to unite around the creation of a sanitation company and, in 1877, Companhia Cantareira de Águas e Esgotos was born.
The inauguration of reservoirs such as Consolação, in 1881, inspired optimism among São Paulo residents, but soon came complaints of insufficient supply and poor water quality. Private enterprise, which was doing reasonably well in Rio, was seen as a disappointment in São Paulo.
Influential engineers such as Antônio Francisco de Paula Souza (later founder of the Polytechnic School) and Ramos de Azevedo began to defend that the company should be taken over by the government, recalls Cristina de Campos, a professor at the Institute of Geosciences at Unicamp and author of the book “Ferrovias e Sanitation in São Paulo”.
“Paula Souza defended that this was a job under the responsibility of the state. The private sector would not take these projects forward because building water and sewer networks would not bring financial return”, she says. “It is curious to compare that reality with today. Currently, this is a very lucrative business, water, unfortunately, has become a commodity. But at the end of the 19th century, it was not interesting from that point of view.”
In 1892, the government took over Companhia Cantareira, reimbursing its shareholders. From then on, São Paulo would have the Water and Sewage Department (RAE), which lasted more than 50 years.
At the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, Brazil was able to count on a generation of notable doctors, such as Oswaldo Cruz, in Rio, and Emílio Ribas, in São Paulo. Not satisfied with their scientific discoveries, they dedicated themselves to making the population aware of measures to combat epidemics.
As it turned out later, their warning was not enough for the country to face its precarious health with the necessary rigor.
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