In Brazil oil town, water is a precious commodity

MACAE, Brazil (Reuters) - Thin black water hoses snake across the ground all over Nova Holanda, a workers’ neighborhood on the edge of the Brazilian boom town of Macae.

Residents of the Nova Holanda (New Holland) slum walk past a portable pump to draw water from a polluted river in the city of Macae north of Rio de Janeiro in this March 3, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos/Files

Oil and gas may have brought riches to the former fishing village but water is almost as precious.

Over the years, thousands of job seekers have flocked to the area, building homes wherever there’s a patch of ground.

But Nova Holanda has only one standpipe linked to the city’s main system -- forcing people to install a makeshift system of their own with the hoses.

The rough conditions make Nova Holanda a hostile, dirty and violent place to many people but profitable for others, like taxi driver and entrepreneur Edvar Santos, 58.

“Son, in Nova Holanda you’ve got just two options. Either you pay people to take that water for you or you have a nice pump to do it yourself,” he said.

Santos said he owns two houses, a small building and a water tank capable of storing 35,000 liters a week.

He and many other people installed the hoses so they can sell water from the city system at a price of about 10 reais ($6) for 100 liters (26 gallons). They can also arrange for water pumps -- at a cost of about 150 reais ($90).

Nelio da Cunha, a 23-year-old migrant from Bahia, works for state-owned Petrobras in Macae as a machine operator on the nightshift. During the day he pumps water to make extra money.

“Macae is an expensive city and not everybody has the money like those executives. This is the best solution we found to stay here. There’s no rent and no water bill. I think we adapted well,” he said.


Indeed, if Brazil is known for its huge social differences, Macae represents the country well, with its wealth concentrated in a very small elite.

The city’s per capita GNP is of 120,600 reais ($70,000) yearly. About half of Macae’s 865 million reais ($508 million) budget in 2007 came from oil royalties.

The royalties should be used to compensate for the infrastructure problems that have arisen from the race for jobs.

Environmentalist Katia Junqueira said the city administrators of Macae and other oil towns have not used the resources properly, giving rise to situations like that in Nova Holanda.

“Water and royalties are the same issue. Like other oil cities, Macae had no policy to deal with migration and occupation of the urban area.”

“The hoses are an innovative solution, the only one heard of in Brazil, but they also show how those people have been neglected for ages,” she said.

City spokesman Romulo Campos acknowledged the problems in the poor areas and said planned investments in Nova Holanda would double the water supply there.

The administration will spend this year 15 million reais to install 7,500 meters of pipes in Macae.

But that is still not enough, he said.

“We cannot end those infrastructure flaws that have lasted decades. We are also concerned that oil production is not growing as much as in the previous years. Eventually, it will be finished, maybe in 30 years. What happens then, only God knows,” he said.

The hoses of Nova Holanda may still be there.

Reporting by Mauricio Savarese; Editing by Eddie Evans