SAO PAULO – A slum close to Latin America’s largest city houses some 4,500 people who have no access to clean drinking water and where residents regularly get sick due to the unhygienic and substandard conditions they are forced to live in.
The Anchieta-Grajau community, located some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from downtown Sao Paolo, is one of many unregulated slums where viral diseases are rampant and residents live in shacks made of wood and plastics.
“My husband complains of stomach ache more often than not,” said Maria das Graças, a 63-year-old who has been living in the shanty town for the last five years with her husband and disabled daughter.
“I think that it is due to a lack of sanitation, there is a need for water that has been more treated,” the woman added. “Fecal waters flow in front of the house and continue downwards,” Graças told EFE.
Ever since Graças’ family arrived in the slum the gastrointestinal issues caused by being exposed to contaminated water have become so frequent the family does not even bother going to see a doctor anymore.
The community has no access to clean drinking water and the only spring they did have, in recent years, has become the final destination of wastewaters that travel in the open through the shantytown, which emerged in 2013.
Marcos Cruz lives with his three children, all of whom have repeatedly suffered bouts of diarrhea, which is unsurprising given that alongside the waters infected with human feces there is also a plastic hose that distributes “clean” water, which is not potable, for the home use.
The issue is that filthy residue traveling through the open sewers filter into these hoses, which transport water for showers and toilets.
“There the kids are not immunized and they end up ill,” Cruz said.
Anderson Fernandes, a 38-year-old community leader of this impromptu shantytown, said that some of the main symptoms neighbors present are “diarrhea, general malaise, and headaches.”
“I was even ill these last three days due to the water,” he continued.
According to the Brazil Trata Institute, an NGO that collects official data on sanitation and health conditions across the country, nearly half of Brazilians, almost 1 million people, do not have access to adequate sewage systems.
About 13 million children and teenagers grow up in areas where there is no access to basic sanitation which favors the proliferation of viral outbreaks.
In some areas of the Anchieta-Grajau slum sewage flows in front of many houses forcing residents to lay down wooden boards so as not to come into contact with the dirty water.
Rain often complicates problems further.
The shanty town is built on a hill, meaning waste sits stagnant during dry spells and when the rains return the putrid waters rise and on occasions even invade homes.
“The country generally lacks a safe and sanitized sewage system,” Alceu Galvao of the Trata Institute told EFE.
The government has earmarked 508 billion reais ($132 billion) in order to develop a sewage infrastructure across Brazil in 2033.
However, Galvao is concerned that this target is progressively being delayed with officials already suggesting a more realistic aim would be to achieve this by 2050.
The delays are blamed on the deep economic crisis Brazil suffered between 2015-2016 and the fact that recovery has been very slow.
There is also an added bureaucratic sticking point.
Sewage systems are widely developed by state-funded companies or companies that are part-funded by the government, and if they were to reform unregulated slums it would be interpreted as the state legalizing what to date has been labeled “an invasion of the lands.”
The million-odd people living in Brazil’s many illegal shantytowns find themselves in a catch-22 scenario.
Community leader, Fernandes, is attempting to tackle precisely this issue which leaves millions in a sort of limbo, but the case of Anchieta-Grajau is slightly different because when individuals flocked to the land they occupied six years ago it belonged to the Achieta-Grajau Institute Association and they approved to accommodate thousands of families in search of a home.
“In the last six years they approved the proposal of connecting us to a sewage system, now we only a need a document that backs this,” Fernandes added.
Meanwhile, the community activist is rallying partners in order to launch a project that would see a green space developed around the water spring that used to supply the town with clean drinking water.