Without Reliable Running Water, Favela Residents Push for Right to Wash Hands Amid Pandemic

State Water Utility Scrambles to Provide Service and Fix Broken Pumps

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This is the sixth article in what will be a spotlighted issue on RioOnWatch for the foreseeable future: the new coronavirus as it impacts Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, favela residents across Rio de Janeiro are suffering from inconsistent access to running water, according to a recent survey by the state’s Public Defender’s Office. The governmental body received 475 responses in 5 days from March 18 to 23, with complaints of inadequate water provision spanning 140 different neighborhoods across 14 Rio de Janeiro municipalities. The vast majority of these reports came from favelas in the Rio metropolitan area.

Water troubles are a long-standing problem for favelas, says Renata Trajano of Coletivo Papo Reto, a human rights and communications collective based in the North Zone favelas of Complexo do Alemão. “The majority of Alemão has water problems, but this isn’t new. It’s a chronic, constant problem.” Out of Brazil’s 100 largest cities, the country’s second largest city of Rio de Janeiro ranks 52nd for water and sewage treatment, according to a 2020 study by the Trata Brasil Institute, a civil society public interest group.

With the arrival of the new coronavirus, Rio’s water issues have gained new urgency. “The concern that we have, mainly, is that we are looking at a public health issue,” Public Defender Ombudsman Guilheme Pimentel told RioOnWatch. “It’s important that everyone wash their hands and that everyone has access to water so that they can follow the official recommendations of health authorities. If certain people don’t have the means to do that, we are not going to be able to control this pandemic. This will affect everyone.”

Favela activists sounded the alarm weeks ago with the social media campaign #COVID19NasFavelas, alerting the world that, without water, frequent hand washing would be out of the question. Rene Silva, founder of the community news site Voz das Comunidades and resident of Complexo do Alemão, tweeted March 16 that he had received multiple reports of lack of access to water in his neighborhood.

“Many residents of Complexo do Alemão are complaining that they don’t have a water supply and because of this, they aren’t able to protect themselves against the new coronavirus. There is no hand sanitizer in pharmacies or supermarkets.”

Out of 475 responses, the Defender’s Office received 397 reports of partial or total water stoppage, with 14 complaints from Alemão alone. Some residents noted they have gone between a week and a full month without water. The neighborhood ranked third in the survey, behind the South Zone favelas of Tabajaras (93 responses) and Rocinha (27).

Since appealing to the Public Defender’s Office and organizing their communities—including, in the case of Alemão, an in-person meeting between residents’ associations and Guilherme Campos, technical assistant responsible for community support at water utility CEDAE—all three neighborhoods have reported renewed attention, including water re-supplies and pump repairs. In an email to RioOnWatch on March 30, CEDAE noted that it had attended to 682 complaints in the Rio metropolitan area between March 16-27 and has maintained 40 water tank trucks in circulation, dedicated specifically to addressing problems in the favelas.

While some favela residents confirmed repairs and prompt attention, however, others told RioOnWatch that CEDAE service was haphazard and insufficient. In Santa Marta, a South Zone favela near Tabajaras, community organizer Thiago Firmino said that following CEDAE’s pump repairs, the same issues returned. “[How can we have water] some days at the bottom of the favela and some days at the top of the favela during a moment of crisis?” questioned Firmino, who pointed out that many residents have also been unable to conserve water. “There are people that don’t have water tanks at home, people that don’t have money to buy gallons of water like they’re asking us.” Days later, Firmino added that Santa Marta had gone a full 48 hours without water, with regular service returning March 31.

Some residents took matters into their own hands, appealing to the press after continued, failed attempts to resolve the situation with CEDAE. This was the case in Pedra Lisa, a chronically underserved neighborhood of Morro da Providência, where local communicator and tour guide Cosme Felippsen produced a series of resident interviews posted to Twitter by The Intercept Brasil:

“In Morro da Providência, in the downtown Centro area of Rio, a portion of residents do not have water defend themselves from coronavirus, which depends on habits like washing your hands regularly to reduce the risk of infection. In this video, we show how this problem leaves the favela even more vulnerable.”

“The men from CEDAE come and take a look around, and nothing,” says resident Ana Cláudia in the video above. “How are we supposed to wash our hands all the time if there is no water in Pedra Lisa?” Residents, in waiting for repairs, depended on support from neighbors, receiving jugs of water carried in, sometimes up a steep hill. CEDAE technicians arrived on March 28, and Felippsen reports that water provision has since returned to normal. “We don’t want water just for now,” added Felippsen in a follow-up video, adding that the neighborhood had suffered longstanding water issues. “We want water for later too, and for all of these problems to be resolved.”

Others in the West and North Zones of the city are yet to receive repairs (CEDAE’s Twitter feed remains clogged with complaints), and remain unable to abide by healthcare recommendations for Covid-19 prevention. “Unless every family has access to water, no family is safe,” cautioned Pimentel. “Either we have citizenship for everyone, or no one is safe… this is a problem for all of society.”

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