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River's Bounty Bypasses Families, Feeds Business

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River's Bounty Bypasses Families, Feeds Business


River's Bounty Bypasses Families, Feeds Business

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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To Brazil now, where there are profound disparities between the rich and the poor - differences in income and education, and as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, access to water. She sent this story from a river basin in Brazil's northeast.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The broad, blue Sao Francisco River fans out across Brazil in a basin as big as California and Utah combined. Colorful riverboats are a favorite form of transport in this arid northeastern region. But the bounty of this great waterway that feeds five states before emptying into the Atlantic is passing thousands of poor families by.

In this part of the distressed state of Pernambuco, 90 percent of the water used from the river, according to officials from the federal agricultural research agency, goes to large-scale agriculture - not for local consumption, but for export. Lush fields of irrigated grapes, mangoes and melons destined for the United States and Europe shimmer like a mirage across the highway from where Jose de Sousa lives with his wife and seven children. But in his bleak settlement of cinderblock homes, ironically called Living Waters, there is only intermittent supply of running water.


MCCARTHY: The Sousas' eldest child, 12-year-old Gessia, died in February when she fell from this leaking irrigation canal to the ground below while trying to collect water. A makeshift altar marks the spot. Her father stops there and says children routinely climb a 30-foot-high concrete canal in order to get water for their families.

JOSE DE SOUSA: (Portuguese spoken)

MCCARTHY: The people who have families here, he says, have to go off to work where they usually earn just enough to survive, so you have to have an older child go off and fetch the water. There is no other solution, he says.

Neighbor and friend Einaldo Barros works with Sousa, pruning grapes at a local vineyard for less than a dollar an hour. The setting sun burns the sky, vermillion as he picks up the story.

EINALDO BARROS: (Portuguese spoken)

MCCARTHY: The canal system irrigates the entire region. Water is all around us, he says. And this is a great shame for our country, that because of the lack of access to water, this girl had to die, he says.

Her death mobilized the community who organized a protest, and for a short period, they had running water.


MCCARTHY: Less than an hour away, outside the town of Lagoa Grande, there appears to be an abundance of water for one of Brazil's most successful wineries, where newly harvested grapes are being poured into vats. The churning waters of the Sao Francisco flow past the 500 acres of fields.

Owner Joao Santos, a native of Portugal, says the river is the lifeblood of his vines.

JOAO SANTOS: (Foreign Language Spoken)

MCCARTHY: Each of his plants, he explains, drinks some 400 liters - about 90 gallons of water a year. Santos says he pays about $2,000 a year for water rights. At that rate, he's paying virtually pennies for millions of gallons of water.

I asked whether he feels there is something out of balance in the way water is apportioned, or if his good fortune carries a responsibility towards families who live on just bucketsful of water a week.

Santos says it's not that simple.

SANTOS: (Foreign Language Spoken)

MCCARTHY: I have so many problems with my own company, he says. I have a hard enough time getting the government's attention for myself. My responsibility lies with the 30 people on my payroll.

The mayor of Lagoa Grande has no easy solution for the disparity. He's unhappy that nearly half of his town of 25,000 residents has no running water. But he feels he must court businesses like the wineries that represent new opportunity in this harsh and depressed region.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, in the Sao Francisco River basin.

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