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Rural Residents Find Riches in Saltwater

By Adalberto Marcondes - Tierramérica*

Fish farming and growing forage crops resolve the problem of dealing with the waste left by water desalination in a thirsty community of the Brazilian Northeast.

SÃO JOSÉ DO SERIDÓ, Brazil, Apr 23 (Tierramérica) - A village in Brazil's dry Northeast region is putting to the test a project that began with machine to desalinize the little water available, and has ended up creating food and income and promoting sustainable agriculture.

Caatinga Grande, founded in 1989 on land affected by agrarian reform near the town of São José do Seridó, in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, aims to be a showcase for innovative technologies of the Programa Água Doce (fresh water program, launched in 2004 by several state and non-governmental entities.

Some 200 kilometers from Natal, the state capital, this modest village with the Santa Rita church as a backdrop has households that have scared off misery. Situated in the middle of Brazil's semiarid region, it was chosen to test a new technique for making use of waste from its well of saltwater, one of thousands in the Northeast.

The Caatinga Grande desalination apparatus produces 10 liters of potable water daily for each of its 355 residents -- enough for their drinking and cooking needs.

But, "for each liter of potable water, we obtain a liter of water saturated with salts," technician Odilon Juvino de Araújo, of the Brazilian agricultural research agency EMBRAPA, told Tierramérica.

And that salty wastewater contaminates soil and kills plants, explained resident José Anselmo Filho.

What to do with the wastewater became a problem that caused some disputes with neighboring towns, until a new approach came from EMBRAPA, which was researching a possible solution in the nearby state of Pernambuco.

"We came to resolve an environmental problem" and ended up creating a "virtuous cycle" with the desalinator, said Araújo.

Less than 300 meters away from the village are three holding tanks that form part of that solution -- but they were initially seen with skepticism by the local population. "Since they have promised so many things, we have learned to distrust. But now it's different. There are results," Netinha, a resident, tells Tierramérica as she points to the fish swimming in one of the tanks.

The potable water flows from the desalinator into a tank that supplies the community, while the wastewater is channeled to two other tanks where a resistant and tasty fish is raised: the red tilapia, a hybrid variety of the Oreochromis genus that adapts well to environments with high mineral content.

A third tank accumulates the used water from the two fish pools, which is rich in minerals and organic material -- and is potentially a serious contaminant. But that liquid doesn't go to waste either. It is used to irrigate plots of saltbush (Atriplex nummularia), a forage crop of Australian origin that absorbs the salt and serves as food for the sheep and goats in the area.

The land where the tanks and the saltbush crops are located is set up with underground protection to prevent the salt from filtering into the deeper soils and groundwater.

"I had a hard time believing in this, but now the fish are fat and are going to provide a good yield," says Cícero Martins da Costa, one of the people responsible for the fish farm. He hopes to get 800 kilograms of fish that the community will be able to sell, or eat it themselves.

"It's a source of income that didn't exist before," he says.

Tilapia take six months to reach maturity. But the fish farm tanks are staggered by a three-month difference. This way, the community has four fish harvests per year.

According to João Bosco Senra, water resources secretary at the Environment Ministry, this technology could be implemented soon for many of the 2,000 desalinators installed on the wells in the "sertão", the semiarid region in eastern Brazil extending from the Jequitinhonha Valley in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, through Bahia, Pernambuco, Sergipe, Alagoas and Rio Grande do Norte, to Ceará.

"We are developing new materials to make it easier and cheaper to maintain the desalinators," Senra told Tierramérica.

The Programa Água Doce's financial backing comes from the Banco do Brasil Foundation. The cost of each unit installed is about 35,000 dollars, and includes repairs and updating of the desalinators, construction of the holding tanks, pumps to move the water, planting of saltbushes and technical assistance.

"The money is very well spent. It's about 50 cents (0.27 dollars) per person, per day, to ensure quality potable water, sanitation, food, income and a stimulus for goat and sheep production," says Foundation president Jacques de Oliveira Pena.

The Foundation will earmark 1.4 million dollars for expanding the initiative across Brazil's semiarid region. In total, the partners in the Programa Água Doce will provide 6.76 million dollars to replicate the endeavor in 22 communities in 11 states.

"The important thing is to have something concrete to show to the people of the sertão," who will want to see results if they are to be convinced, says Pena.

* Adalberto Marcondes is the director of Agencia Envolverde.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. All Rights Reserved

External Links

Banco do Brasil Foundation

Brazilian Environment Ministry - Water Resources Secretariat


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