We want to understand the dynamics of social, digital and communication processes underpinning stories of water that reflect attitudes towards sustainability which might have a particular role in generating both community resilience/adaptation to climate change and willingness to engage with water governance structures and policy-making.
Here we share some stories of water we collected in Brazil that may offer a glimpse of how rich can be the symbolic layers people build in their relationship with the environment.
“I was born in a town in the Northeast of Brazil, along a river bank. My family was marked by floods in 1969 and in 2010. In 1969 my mother’s house had to be abandoned. She was a child and had to save her brothers through the roof. In 2010 my grandmother was still living in the same house and saw her neighbours die or lose their homes again. The saddest thing is that I met a city, in my childhood, rebuilt post-69. But then I saw my own memories being destroyed in 2010. The streets, houses, people were not the same”.
“Since I was little, my relationship with water is the relationship with fish. In my grandparents’ house there was a small koi pond, where my cousins, my brothers and I used to play in the yard. There was a small space that was shared by fish and aquatic plants. At home we always had one or two aquariums that calmed us. I interacted with our fish and the water, with the habitats we built. In the adolescence, my brother and I built an artificial lake in my mother’s house yard all by ourselves. We created several plant and fish species there, and after coming home from school, I used to take off my shoes and get into the water. It was delicious. That’s my affective memory related to water”.
“In Bauru we have a historical problem with the lack of water and flooding. When the city was built – or began to expand – there was not a structural planning capable of anticipating future problems. Thus, our great avenue Nações Unidas (United Nations) suffers from floods every year. Even deaths have been reported. On the other hand, in drier periods, communities experience water shortages. The levels of our reservoirs get much lower, causing rationing. Despite being a historical problem that recurs and increases, the authorities cannot solve it”.
“In the 2014 elections, São Paulo faced a water crisis that left much of the city without water. Control agencies have warned that the water crisis was announced a few years before, however there was mismanagement of the problem by the party that controls the state for almost 20 year. Nevertheless, the governor was reelected in the first round, even with the lack of water directly affecting people’s lives and their day-to-day”.
“I have two memories about water. The first is about the first time I saw a hail storm. For me as a child it was something almost magical. I thought like it was falling ice from the sky. This day was amazing. The second is about when the transposition of the São Francisco River began, because I really hoped that the lack of water in the Northeast of Brazil could end, but we still have citizens suffering because they don’t have water, it’s sad”.
“My strongest water memories are marked by a feeling of melancholy and loss. I remember, for instance, a day in my 12s when I went for a picnic with classmates in a farm next to our public school with our Biology teacher. When we were coming back, it started to rain and as soon as I left the car in front of my home, there was a great flash flood in our street. I lie down on the sidewalk and let all of that water go over my body. Thirty years later, I wonder how dirty (or clean!) that water was, and that I felt confident to dive into it. Today, considering how polluted our cities are, it is impossible for a child to repeat my experience”.
“Water has always been a big part of my childhood and late teenage years. Some relatives had swimming pools in their homes, I also attended local clubs for fun and sports practice… However, the best memories relate to vacation time I spend on my uncle’s farm. There were two rivers we used to swim in, go fishing, ride horses. There were also springs of mineral water and all this has remained in my memories. I guess this is one reason why I’ve always had great respect for natural water sources and why I always try to go to beaches where there is fresh water nearby”.
“A few months ago there was a dam break in Rio Doce, Minas Gerais, contaminating the whole river, which was presumed dead by many experts. There is also another current event that is the lack of water in the state of São Paulo, for more than two years. This is related to the lack of state government investments in the water supply system. Profits have been distributed to shareholders instead of being invested in improvements”.
“One of the biggest problems we have in regions such as the Northeast of Brazil is sanitation. Very few cities have adequate sanitation. There is also the lack of awareness and local engagement in pressing the local executive authorities to take the necessary measures”.
“There is a creek in my city that connects its two sides. About 10 years ago we started to experience floods that cause a lot of material damage. The mayor, instead of doing something about it, built a bus station along the creek as a sign of power, against opposition. Nowadays the bus station is breaking, risking the life of many”.
“Water brings to me a lot of memories. In my early years, it represents opportunity to play and have fun, in other words, it’s a happy time. When I’m in my teenage years, water becomes my stress free zone, in waterfalls and rivers. Now, in my adult life, water becomes no more a thing to play or to release me from stress. There’s shortage where once there was abundance; the disaster in the city of Mariana and adjacent; the hydraulic crisis in the state of São Paulo. In that fashion, water becomes more an urgent matter than a play thing. It’s sad to think what water could be and what it becomes”.
“I live in a city of São Paulo called Igarapava. Next to it, there is a town called Aramina. Both are small towns with less than 3.000 inhabitants and the economy depends on growing sugarcane crops. As a border region with the state of Minas Gerais, there is a river that separates the states, called Rio Grande. The relationship with water in this region has been problematic for some time. The sugarcane crops burning changed the climate, it rains very little, and in addition to this the water is contaminated by pesticides. Besides that, a few years ago, in Aramina cheap plumbing pipes were used. These pipes released a carcinogen in the water, which caused many cases of childhood bone cancer”.
“In Brazil I grew up being taught that we live in a poor country, in terms of money, but rich by its nature abundance, water in special. All the Brazilian folklore, literature, somehow were related to water, from the ‘boto cor-de-rosa’ to ‘Vidas secas’. Even the drought stories had a tone that the people who suffer this in their country were just ‘unlucky’. In 2015, the biggest city in Brazil, São Paulo, had drought. The media covered the issue as a big unfortunate surprise. We talked about environment, politics, but not about public policies that could actually change people’s life”.
“I found it amazing when I’ve been to traditional communities in the Amazon forest, where people relate with water in a totally different way than in the southeast cities. There is abundance of water while rivers also have a quite different dynamic. However, water access is compromised by the absence of treatment/sanitation (which seems a much more serious problem in the Southeast)”.
“When I moved in to Sao Carlos, Brazil, I was not capable to imagine the force of our river here. Every year it overflows. I asked many people what they think about it. The persons who are not native from here simply don’t understand and, even wonder why it happens. On the other hand, the natives always have an answer, that I have seen several times in journals and political speeches. Like: Well….it here always has a flood!’ A workman told me Sao Carlos has a problem with hard and short rain, that simply floods everywhere [flash flooding]. I come from another city Jundiaí, SP, there is a lot of public policy about the treatment and care of the water. To me, here it is very strange. I am still looking for understanding here but there is none”.
“I grew up in Sao Paulo city. It is a megalopolis in Brazil. Living in peace with the water is a problem for the city. About 2 years ago I almost lost my car in a flood. I was driving on an avenue and it starts to rain very hard and that is famous because it always floods. So I found an elevated station to move out of the flood and stayed there about 5 hours because two blocks ahead the water covered. That day a lot of the parts of the city were covered in water, the police and firefighters responded, and some people were rescued by helicopter, but I was safe”.
“I love the sea and beach, so I love water! Thank God, Brazil is a country that has water. A lot. Rivers, sea etc. But last year we had problems with our important river that supplies water to Sao Paulo. Many people when without water in their homes. It was a serious problem. Today the situation is better, and the level of the river is going up. Some people say Brazil needs water governance, that will solve the problems, but we have many problems with corruption, and it uses even the water to steal it from the population!”
“I am part of a project. The project involved the mapping of local communities, local powers and governments in the high and middle Sao Francisco River, with a major focus on fishing communities and their social and local economic vulnerabilities. The project also provided systematic studies about the sustainable management of fishing resources. My main contribution was the final report: ‘A study about relations of gender and families with the Sao Francisco fishing’”.
We thank Clara Tadayozzi for the assistance in translation.