Postcard from Brazil: water resource management in Porto Seguro

By Dustin Brown

Reposted with permission from What WE Have to Say, Western University Engineering’s blog

I’m here in part due to the generosity of Mitacs Canada and J.D. Hole, each of whom helped me with elaborating and funding my part of the research project, in part due to the kind people at Western University who helped to push paperwork and orient me for the logistics of international travel, and finally, the warm welcome of Marcos Bernardes, his family, and the people at Universidade Federal do Sul da Bahia (UFSB). I would highly recommend working with any or all of these organizations or people.

The project I am taking part in focuses on the water resource management of the district of Porto Seguro. As it stands, there are a number of problems with the collection of wastewater in the watershed. The research team has a reasonable level of certainty that there are a number of private landowners who release their sewage directly into the Rio Mangues – this is the river from which over 100,000 people are supplied with drinking water.

Arraial D’Ajuda, meanwhile, suffers from the same problem with the Rio Mucugê. Just this week we received notice that the coastal area that the Mucugê drains into is unfit for recreational activity. This is the first time this has been assessed, so the information is new for all residents and tourists. Life without this crucial data is like being blindfolded. Now, with the data, at least people have a choice as to whether they want to swim in the water, and businesses with beachfront properties have evidence that could be used in legal action.

Unfortunately, the state-run water service provider has a lack of transparency, is possibly corrupt, and is definitely ineffective. I could go on, but suffice it to say that a lack of infrastructure and poor governance are the things that are most likely at the root of the poor water quality here. 

In any case, drinking water is still treated before it reaches homes, so the chief problems are:  

  1. The treatment of drinking water likely costs taxpayers much more than it should, and  
  2. The ecological properties of the rivers, their surrounding environments, and the coastal waters are suffering degradation.  

As a result of the situation, Marcos and a team of other researchers are collaborating to evaluate alternatives for drinking water. Between the city of Porto Seguro and Arraial D’Ajuda, there is a large river, Rio Buranhém. It has a larger cross-section than Rio Mangues or Rio Mucugê, and has a substantial mangrove along its banks that act to filter runoff water as well as induce some separation between the river’s waters and the growth of the cities. For these reasons, there is a potential that it remains relatively unaffected by such problems. Therefore, it is being thoroughly assessed.

Because it drains into the ocean and has a large estuary (the part of a river in which river flows and tidal flows mix together to form a body of mixed waters), the Buranhém has complex hydrodynamics. A section of the river that is all freshwater might be brackish or even salty at a different point in the tidal cycle, or even with different precipitation levels.

In addition, a recently released report stated that approximately 7% of the sewage in Eunápolis, a city upstream from the city of Porto Seguro, is collected by water service providers. The remaining 93% is assumed to be released directly into the Rio Buranhém, eventually travelling to Porto Seguro. With all these inputs from both nature and human activities, we are examining very complex conditions.

To understand the system better, the team here is undergoing field campaigns in order to determine a) the hydrodynamic patterns of the Rio Buranhém and b) the water quality of each of the rivers and the coastal areas associated with them. The hope is that with assessments of the water quality, the governing bodies responsible for water quality can be moved to improve the situation for the inhabitants here, and with an understanding of the hydrodynamics of the Buranhém, good decisions for future sustainable water resources development will become more possible.

In other words, we are trying to put together a comprehensive assessment that will lead to regular water quality monitoring, which is a crucial aspect of long-term water security.

I personally have been responsible, in the first few weeks here, for reading a number of dissertations and theses about each of the rivers (in Portuguese! Which has been a very difficult translation exercise), learning more about estuary dynamics and the details of the situation here, and assisting with sensor maintenance in the field and water quality evaluations in the laboratory. After I leave, I’ll continue my contributions by altering a dissertation to include the data that we collect during our major field campaign in the month of August. It is a privilege to work on a project that will (we hope) eventually lead to a systematic improvement in the water resources management of Porto Seguro, and even the rest of Brazil if the spirit of the project is successfully emulated. 

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Globalink Research Award program in this story. Across Canada, the Globalink program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba. 

In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support this award, including Campus France and Inria, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.

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