Turning Point Environmental Health in Brazil

By Csillag, Claudio | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Turning Point Environmental Health in Brazil


Csillag, Claudio, Environmental Health Perspectives


In the two decades leading up to the turn of the twenty-first century, Brazil has stood at an environmental turning point that mirrors the political, economic, and cultural changes faced by the nation over the same period. A 1964 coup d'etat left Brazil under the rule of a rightist military regime that lasted the next 20 years. But the return of civilian government in 1984-1985 was followed by important institutional reorganizations in the government and in society in general.

The 1980s saw huge growth in the amount of attention paid by the Brazilian government to environmental health concerns. Indicators for drinking water quality and treatment began evolving significantly during this time, and continue to do so. Legislation for solid urban waste is still being improved continuously. Even nuclear waste started to receive more attention in 1987, after Brazil's worst nuclear accident ever. Frequently called one of earth's most polluted cities in the past, coastal Cubatao saw a turning point of its own in the 1980s with the implementation of efforts to limit industrial pollution, which have since yielded consistent positive results. In the same decade, a successful national policy to limit vehicle pollution emissions was put into action. Finally, it was during the 1980s that the government started a monitoring system to track poisonings from pesticides, of which Brazil is one of the world's leading consumers. At the same time, vectorborne and infectious diseases have become a major challenge, with malaria cases increasing during the 1980s and acquiring epidemic proportions in major cities, and the reappearance of diseases once believed to have been vanquished.

Today, Brazil is fighting to set more effective environmental protection policies and to increase the health of its people. Significant advances have been achieved in many areas. Still, there are obstacles to be overcome.

Water: The Most Basic Need

With the creation of the National Water Agency in July 2000, Brazil marked an important milestone in the process of creating stable water resource management policies. This regulatory agency will establish a national system that will oversee water resource management at the regional and local levels. Brazil's goal is to not only ensure consistency in the water supply but also to protect the quality of the nation's bodies of water.

In 1971 the National Water Supply and Sanitation Plan was created, in part to increase urban dwellers' access to water services. A later national policy With me same general gore, devised jointly by the Secretariat of Urban Development (SEDU) and the Secretariat for Urban Policy (SEPURB), stated that, based on the most recent census data (from 1991 33% of families earning less than US$85 per month about 460,000 households--are not connected to a public drinking water system. Almost twice that number, 59% of families earning less than US$85 per month (830,000 households), do not have access to wastewater treatment services. Among wealthier households (making more than US$830 per month), these numbers are around 1% and 10%, respectively.

Although this situation is less than ideal, it reflects a considerable increase in access to water services. Between 1970 and 1995, the Brazilian urban population more than doubled, from 52 million to 120 million. During the same period, the number of households receiving water services increased from 60% to 90%. In rural areas, however, progress was less dramatic, from 2% in 1970 to only 17% in 1995. In metropolitan areas, outlying neighborhoods tend to be poorer and thus typically have less water service coverage, partly because state companies mainly invest in areas with higher potential profitability, according to a 1995 report by the Ministry of Planning and Budget titled Demand, Availability, and Requirements for Sanitation Services. The country also sees regional differences: the northern region has lower levels of coverage, while the richer south is best served. …

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