Tragic death statistics in water-rich Brazil

Joelmir Beting, one of Brazil's most widely read columnists, used the following metaphor to describe the never-reported tragic consequences of water contamination.

Joelmir Beting, one of Brazil's most widely read columnists, used the following metaphor to describe the never-reported tragic consequences of water contamination. Every day a 767 Boeing falls in the center of Brasilia, Brazil's capital, killing 238 children less than 5 years old.

He called attention to a recent report by the national Health Ministry in Brazil, which provides death toll statistics resulting from the lack of water and sewage treatment.

The report shows a deficit of around 30% in drinkable water (more than 40 million people) and 57% in sewerage collection. This number rises to 85% if treated sewerage is considered, not just the collected percentage. The ministry reported that contaminated water is responsible for two-thirds of the deaths of children below the age of five, interned in public hospitals, which averages 238 deaths per day.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office last January, contends that the federal government must join congressmen, governors and mayors in a national campaign to make treated water and collected sewage universal in this decade.

This target faces immense financial hurdles. The Finance Ministry estimates that US$ 1.5 billion per year would have to be invested from 2004 to 2010 to make drinking water available to the whole population of around 170 million.

Last May, President Lula pressured Planning Minister Guido Mantega and Finance Minister Antonio Palloci to make sure that the US$ 466 million promised by the government would be used for basic sanitation projects. Currently, municipalities face a limited US$ 66.6 million budget, as established by the previous government to abide by targets it agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund. The government wants to establish partnerships with the private sector based on a successful model applied in 62 municipalities in the state of São Paulo state and in Ribeirão Preto. However, clear regulations must be established in order to implement a private-partnership model throughout the entire country.

According to the Minister of Cities Olivio Dutra, the sector needs US$ 1 billion worth of investments, but this also requires changing Central Bank rules and altering a resolution by the National Monetary Council. Dutra created the National Sanitation Secretariat, headed by Abelardo de Oliveira Filho, who plans to coordinate 24 sanitation programs scattered in seven ministries and give priority to the financial health of the country's 27 state sanitation companies. Only eight of these companies are "balanced," according to him. Only US$ 966 million of the US$ 4.9 billion budgeted for sanitation during 1994-2000 were invested.

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