One Million Cisterns (P1MC)

Context

If you click here, you will hear a performance of Lata d’agua, a popular Brazilian samba tune written in 1952 that tells the story of laundrywoman Maria carrying a large bucket of water on her head as she walks up the hill to the favela where she lives. Maria makes her living using this water to wash the clothes of people from the city, yet does not have access to water to use for herself on the hill. Instead she must carry it up there, her own access being extremely limited. The story of Maria as echoed and remembered through this song as it continues to be widely performed throughout Brazil represents the story of so many rural women still struggling to access water today.[1]

However, these stories do not all have unhappy endings. While it is true that many women still lack reliable access to clean water, effective water management policies have taken root and begun to mitigate water crises in Brazil with notable success thanks to the participation and leadership roles assumed by rural women. The empowerment of rural women as productive agents in water management specifically through their co-involvement in the One Million Cisterns (P1MC) project and other various feminist organizations has fundamentally changed the distribution of water resources in Brazil and continues to do so. [2] But to better understand how the stories of women like Maria the laundrywoman are beginning to change, we need to go back and critically analyze the water crisis in its entirety through an ecofeminist lens.

An Ecofeminist Framework

The Brazilian Semi-Arid is one of the poorest rural areas in Brazil and is home to an estimated 2 million families who suffer from no access to clean drinking water. [1] This water crisis is a serious environmental problem and it is incredibly important that we see it as inevitably gendered and thus inextricably linked to ecofeminism thought. Gender matters in water management as rural women in these indigenous communities are responsible for managing water and waste as it is their responsibility to fetch water from wells and ponds, manage drinking water, cook, wash, clean, and care for their families and communities. [1] Additionally, they are responsible for managing health, hygiene, and agricultural tasks that involve gardening and animal care. [1] All of these efforts require water and thus women make most of the decisions concerning water management in the household. Yet despite their critical roles as water managers within the family unit, as water preservers, as producers of crop, and keepers of household health, women are constantly excluded from water management policies and the roles they play consistently depreciated. This plays out such that women have less access to resources, land, credit, agricultural input, training, decision making, technology, and income compared to their male counterparts. [1] Ultimately, “the link of domestic water with social welfare and basic needs explicitly recognizes women’s demands for water and the legitimacy of women’s presence in the drinking water and sanitation policies despite their lack of voice in water management decisions or guarantee of rights.” [1]

Ecofeminism, which is defined by the intersection between environmentalism and feminism, is thus an important framework through which we can understand the gendered nature of the water crisis in Brazil. The abuse of the earth through consumption based models such that water shortages occur and the extreme exploitation of women located in these areas spur from the same patriarchal and consumption based systems that rule of the global economy. The lack of water stems from the privatization of water as it is a highly lucrative sector; it is exactly this privatization that abuses not only the earth but also ignores the livelihoods of rural women.  Leaving finding lasting solutions to the government will not bring effective change as political promises to bring water to rural communities have time and time again been broken. [1] Countering the water crisis must come from rural women themselves for they are the only ones who, by enacting upon their agency, can disrupt the system the effectively works to exploit the earth’s resources as well as their own livelihoods. By taking matters into their own hands, rural women’s fight to procure water is bound to become more than a fight solely about water—through our application of ecofeminism, we can see that their fight will encompass a struggle for social inclusion, environmental justice, and women’s rights in addition to food and water security.[3]

P1MC, Empowerment, and Activism

The implementation of the Program One Million Cisterns (P1MC) began as a solution to the water crisis initially implemented by Oxfam GB, a development, relief, and campaigning organization that finds solutions to poverty around the world, in coordination with the Semi-Arid Coordination Network (ASA) and the NGO Diaconia who cooperated with local, rural communities. [1] [4] The program, implemented in 2003, paid indigenous people suffering from water shortages to be trained in the construction and maintenance of tanks to store rainwater for drinking and cooking. [4] But very quickly women began to question why they were excluded from taking part in the actual cistern construction and being denied that paid labor. Actively organizing and working to put this as a topic of conversation on the agenda, women eventually were successful in their fight for access to these positions thus created identities as cisterneiras. Through their involvement in the P1MC these rural cisterneiras continued to organize and found themselves becoming more and more deeply involved with activism through other organizations they were previously not represented in such as the World Women’s March and Margarida March. [1] At these marches rural women were able to raise the issue of water management crises to much broader, well-known movements. [5] Chaguinha, a self-identified cisneira has explained forming this identity “changed everything” because “in the old days, I did not know my rights. Now I know more.” [1] Women like Chaguinha were able to take the P1MC project and transform it in such a way that created new spaces for rural women to join the public sphere and, by doing so, enable their own access to other opportunities related to work, education, knowledge, and personal growth. Through the actions of rural women, the P1MC became a “bottom-up, civil-society-driven initiative of mobilization and action.” [1] Ultimately, by recognizing the links between the water crisis and feminist issues and becoming agents of social change, rural women have been able to simultaneously bring clean water to their communities while fighting for their rights.

To Learn More:

For more information on the P1MC project, Oxfam’s informational pamphlet can be found here. It includes more detail on how the rainwater cisterns are implemented and what they can do for rural families. It is important to note, however, that while the cistern project supported by Oxfam has significantly changed the lives of rural women, much of this change should be attributed to the agency and leadership roles indigenous women in these communities have enacted upon and taken. Women like Chaguinha were able to use and transform the cistern project in ways that fundamentally changed the course of their own lives and the livelihoods of their communities—their actions should not be considered secondary to the philanthropy of organizations such Oxfam or Diaconia. Rather, it is important to recognize these women leaders as the strong cisterneiras and community activists they are.


[1] Antonio, Luis, and Junior, Jota. Lata d’Agua, 1952, mp3.

[2] Moraes, Andrea Ferreira Jacques de. “Gendered waters: The participation of women on the program ‘One Million Cisterns’ in the Brazilian semi-arid region.” PhD diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2011.

[3] Moraes, Andrea, and Patricia E. Perkins. “Women, equity and participatory water management in Brazil.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 9, no. 4 (2007): 485-493.

[4] Oxfam GB. Cisterns of Life. Oxford: Oxfam International, 2007.

[5] Marcha Das Margaridas’ Facebook page. Accessed March 16, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/Marchadasmargaridas/posts/966508823405338.

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