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How access to information in Brazil could improve access to water in rural communities

The challenges faced by rural communities in Brazil in accessing information about government programmes on access to water are by no means unique. Throughout the world, ARTICLE 19 routinely witnesses the withholding of information vital to fulfilling human rights, such as the right to water.

In celebration of World Water Day and the International Year of Water Cooperation, ARTICLE 19 releases Access to Information and the Right to Water in Rural Communities of Brazil's Semiarid Lands (in Portuguese), prepared in partnership with Centro Sabia, a local group working on agro-ecological development. The publication encourages the use of Brazil's Access to Information Law as a tool to strengthen the struggle for better access to water in the Brazilian dry lands.

2012 was one of the driest of the last 30 years in northeast Brazil. The first months of 2013 also continued the dry trend for the semiarid region of the country, demonstrating how urgently the government needs to put together policies that allow affected communities to live in dignity and survive the droughts.

Access to water has been seen in Brazil as a right since 2011 when Decree number 7535/11 created a programme, Water for All, with the goal of expanding access to potable water to all Brazilians. Law number 9433/97 had already established that water is a collective asset, creating space for the participation of civil society in the management of hydro-resources.

By signing up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Brazil also committed to ensuring women's participation in the design of public policies concerning water. Brazil committed to ensuring the right of women living in rural areas to take part in government plans and programmes in the area, and their right to enjoy adequate living conditions, especially in relation to housing, electricity, transportation, communications and, of course, sanitation and access to water.

Despite such advances in the legal sphere, official data (IBGE 2007) shows that 67% of rural families in the semiarid states of Brazil do not have access to water supply systems, 43% make use of wells and springs, and 24% use other ways to access water, including daily journeys to reach water sources that are frequently inappropriate for human consumption.

Even in rural communities covered by official water programmes in the state of Pernambuco, problems such as the small number of water trucks and the quality of water continues to impose extreme difficulties on families living with the drought. The poor conditions of the roads in the region have also been pointed out as a cause of delays and water deprivation.

In order to foster the mobilsation of these communities, identify possible solutions to the problems raised and propose actions to address such problems, ARTICLE 19 carried out a series of workshops with communities affected by the drought and proposed the use of access to information tools, especially the use of the new Access to Information Law (Law 12527/2011), to get information about specific programmes covering the communities, the budget allocated to water policies in the region, the number of water trucks in operation, and the results of water quality tests. In some of the areas visited by the project, the community has been living without rain for more than a year.

The project identified the following access to information challenges as key reasons why access to water remains a goal and not a reality on the ground:

  • Many of the communities had no access to the internet and no money to send the information requests by mail or travel to the cities to present their demands
  • Many did not know how to use the online resources, even if they had access to a computer connected to the internet - the number of places providing internet access in rural areas are very limited and there is a lack of programmes promoting digital inclusion
  • Many of the members of the community were illiterate and had problems articulating their demands in writing
  • Many of the participants had very limited interaction with the state before and presented difficulties identifying the authorities and public bodies who could reply to their demands for information
  • On the other hand, when asked public authorities and bodies fail to provide information about their roles and responsibilities
  • Those requesting information were sent from one body to another in search of information
  • ARTICLE 19 visited some of the public bodies with members of the community and verified that civil servants were completely unprepared to answer to the public and most of them had no knowledge of the Access to Information Law or knew how to process an information request
  • In some instances, the federal government has been closing down spaces where community leaders could participate in discussions on the management of federal water programmes
  • Structural changes have created a system to transfer funds to state authorities that isolates rural communities and presents low levels of transparency. With the transfer of funds to state authorities, many individuals have already observed lower quality of materials, fewer training opportunities, and a lack of engagement with local communities on access to water. Activists have pointed out that these structural changes in the federal programmes will lead to diminished access to information about the existing programmes and funds, as well as further dependence of these communities in relation to local politicians
  • Many local authorities actively fail to develop information on and promote water programmes, concealing federal resources
  • Community leaders fear for their security if they insist in their attempts to access further information.

ARTICLE 19 strongly believes that increased participation by affected communities in the planning, implementation and evaluation of water policies and programmes is the only way to overcome these challenges. Increased participation requires improved access to information. By promoting these rights we will be promoting the development of a more inclusive and equitable society facilitated by a free flow of information to the public that allows individuals and civil society groups acting at the local level to hold their government to account, advocate for their rights and entitlements more effectively and influence policy-making processes.

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