Das Velhas’ river and Manuelzão Project

Das Velhas’ river and Manuelzão Project

Das Velhas’ river is the largest tributary of São Francisco’s river, with 801 km of extension. It reaches to approximately 4.800.000 inhabitants, crossing 51 municipalities along its course. Das Velhas’ river is essential for the water supply of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais’ capital and largest city. In Brazil, most urban sewage is discharged into rivers without treatment. This is the situation for the Rio das Velhas, which receives in its upper course the sewage of the state capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte (2.4 million inhabitants). Effects of Belo Horizonte’s discharge include changes in water quality and declines in fish and benthos richness and diversity. However, the absence of dams in the Das Velhas’s river main course, associated with connectivity with the São Francisco’s river system and tributaries in excellent condition, increase its rehabilitation potential. (ALVES, C.; POMPEU, P. 2005 The effects of urbanization on biodiversity and water quality in the Rio das Velhas Basin, Brazil. American Fisheries Society Symposium 47, pp. 11-22)

Historically, the Das Velhas’ river has played a major economic role in Minas Gerais, whose main activities of water and land use include: pastureland, mining, cement and quicklime industries, historical tourism, ecotourism, fish breeding, irrigation, and hydroelectricity. Since 1997, the Project Manuelzão has been discussing the connection between sustainable economic development and human health. In revitalizing the river, for example, hunger would be tackled with the restoration of a source of protein from the natural return of fish, also profiting from commercial activities related to fishing. The use of water for human and livestock consumption, as well as agricultural irrigation, also benefits the region’s social and economic development.

In Belo Horizonte, there is the Das Velhas’ basin wherein the Das Velhas’ river becomes canalised, forgotten and ready for regeneration. The indigenous name for Das Velhas’ river is Guaicuí, a derivation of ‘guaimi’, which means ‘old lady’. A legend tells about an explorer who found three elderly indigenous ladies at the margins of the river as he was looking for gold and diamonds. Das Velhas’ river was linked to the historical gold and diamond mining cycle in Minas Gerais, and is currently linked to the mineral exploration cycle in the Iron Quadrangle region. In addition, it suffers from urbanization processes that channel its tributaries and its course, ending riparian forests, and making the river receive untreated urban sewage, which ends up making the river become a “problem” when, in fact, it keeps solutions to the various challenges of creating sustainable urban environments.

Back in the 1990’s professors from Medicine School of Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) discovered that a good portion of the diseases people developed had close relationship with the environmental quality of regions they inhabited and more especially, with the river water quality. Thus, they started The Manuelzão Project, focusing on the environmental recovery of the Das Velhas’ river, which includes the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, and Sabará (among other cities). The Manuelzão Project has close relation with the courses of public health in rural areas. For this reason, it is significant that the main project goal is to get the fish back into the river. The whole idea is making life head back into the river, so it can also flourish on its banks, so that the cities it crosses will be also healthy. Preserving the fishes’ health so that theirs can also be our destiny.

The Manuelzão project comprises numerous actions in several areas, indicating a multilayered attention to the Das Velhas’ basin.

The following are among the main goals of the project:

  • The preservation of the hydrological cycles, by combating the channeling of waterways in large urban centers. With the river beds and streams coated with impermeable material, water does not infiltrate into the ground, thus not reaching the groundwater. Infiltration is important to regulate the amount of water in rivers and streams, as well as provide the seas and oceans with underground flow. Without infiltrating, more water is retained on the surface, causing floods in the lower areas.
  • The review of the São Francisco transposition project, which is an important partner in the revitalization of the Das Velhas’ basin. The transposition project could affect the whole Middle São Francisco and its tributaries, including Das Velhas’ river;
  • Investment in basic sanitation, sewage treatment, waste sorting, natural flooding areas preservation. Moreover, it is necessary that water management plans in the cities that make up the basin, as well as the city laws of the land use and occupation, are reviewed in order to incorporate the life of the rivers as a key aspect of the continuation of life in the cities.
  • Heavy investment in environmental education, from varied approaches of different aspects related to the river.

Since 2001, the Project has created the “Manuelzão Centers”. They were created to share information, discuss and define actions to solve environmental and social issues within the watershed. They are forums for discussion, development, and implementation of goals related to water management, environmental education, as well as participate in the formulation and evaluation of public policies by watershed. The operating principle of these organs is guided by the understanding that “relationships individuals develop with the living spaces are expressed in their daily actions, in the most banal conditions, in the secondary, in the accidental. It is the space to be felt, thought, taken, and lived through the body”. Currently, the project holds 24 centres.

The Manuelzão project develops several related projects devoted to biomonitoring water quality in Das Velhas’ river. These projects are linked to NUVELHAS (Transdisciplinary Centre for the revitalization of Das Velhas river watershed). The main goal is to guarantee the return of the fishes to the rivers that integrate the watershed, especially urban rivers.

NUVELHAS works since 1999, monitoring geographic and geologic aspects of the river, water quality, fishes, and benthonic organisms in order to better understand life inside the river. Several professors and researchers from Medicine, Biology, Geosciences, and Communication Studies are involved in this process, since the idea is to provide information to formulate public policies related to these areas, as well as the lives of urban rivers and communities.

The first results from biomonitoring, back in 1999, showed the negative influence of metropolitan rivers over the Das Velhas’ fauna. Highly polluted tributaries (Arrudas and Onça creek, tributaries of Das Velhas’ river, inside Belo Horizonte, state capital of Minas Gerais) dumped sewage without treatment directly in Das Velhas river, thus compromising the whole fauna and water quality of the river. After presenting the results to the State Government and City Hall, the Manuelzão project sensitized politicians about the situation and the need for radical change. The idea of 2010 and 2014 Goals has been growing since then (early 21st Century).

The 2010 Goal was born in 2004. It was a public policy proposed by the Manuelzão team and had as specific targets: navigation, fishing, and swimming in Das Velhas’ river, in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte.

In 2006, after the implementation of Sewage Treatment Centre of Arrudas creek, the Manuelzão team repeated the biomonitoring study and noticed huge improvement in the water quality of Das Velhas’ river. Better results were achieved after the implementation of Sewage Treatment Centre of Onça creek, in 2010-2011. And what was improved after these actions? The smell and colour of waters, and the main indicator, the return of some fish species to the river.

Carlos Bernardo Mascarenhas, the biologist that coordinates Bio Peixes (Bio Fishes) talks about these achievements in this video:

Friends of The River Part 1 from Comunicação Manuelzão on Vimeo.