Brazil, Expeditions and Travels, Science

Good Water is Hard to Find

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We finally reached Panaquatira beach just as the tropical sun fell like a stone, leaving us under a brilliant starry sky. The several-hour trip from São Luís to Panaquatira through the sprawling city of São José de Ribamar once again left me sad and discouraged. The roads shift from dirt to pothole-strewn asphalt without warning. The houses and commercial establishments look like there was once prosperity, but it has since been lost – or everyone just gave up trying. The disparity of income is obvious and frightening. Slums of unimaginable squalor lie adjacent to wealthy enclaves with high, mean-looking concrete walls topped with electrically charged wire or jagged glass. Despite our GPS with Brazilian road maps, we repeatedly found ourselves in neighborhoods one would never want the misfortune to call home. Panaquatira wasn’t even on the GPS map.

This old man using his cell phone while driving his donkey-driven cart on a traffic-choked street in São Luís personifies the clash between old and new in northern Brazil. A sticker on the back of his cart admonishes the frustrated motorists behind him to “get up earlier if you’re in a rush.”

This old man using his cell phone while driving his donkey-driven cart on a traffic-choked street in São Luís personifies the clash between old and new in northern Brazil. A sticker on the back of his cart admonishes the frustrated motorists behind him to “get up earlier if you’re in a rush.”

Our home for the next two weeks was generously lent to us by the University of Maranhão. Separated from town by about a quarter of a mile on the south side, it has a commanding view of a long sandy point on the north side. The house is luxurious compared to camping on the beach, but still a few steps down from a normal house. First, electricity comes from a temperamental diesel generator that belches thick clouds of black smoke and sounds like Mack truck. The portable yet powerful machine provides power to lights and receptacles that power our many devices and allows recharging of everything one needs for a modern field expedition. When we turn the monster off for the night, the house falls into darkness and we move around with the help of our headlamps. Candles or lanterns won’t do because even at night the wind howls through the windows, which must always remain open. Otherwise the heat would be unbearable.

One of many luxurious houses along the beach at Panaquatira. Behind this house are those belonging to the poor and working class.

One of many luxurious houses along the beach at Panaquatira. Behind this house are those belonging to the poor and working class.

The brief period of power also provides us the chance to refill the 600-liter tank perched in the building’s attic. The tank provides water for household chores and sanitation for all our team for about one day. And what a pleasure it is to soak briefly in a cold shower after a day of heat and windblown sand. Add a beer and we are relaxed and ready for the next day. It’s a little worrisome that we drain the small artesian well dry everyday with the small pump that must be lowered into the well, then pulled back up when the tank is filled. Yet like magic it refills with enough water by the next day.

With this water, as with any water in this area of Brazil, one must be constantly vigilant. Last year four of us came down with intestinal explosions (including this blogger) the night before we left the country on the 18-hour flight home. Going through this once leaves me feeling paranoid about almost everything I ingest. I am fearful of what I might forget: sandwiches with lettuce, water with ice… most seasoned travelers know the drill. But our concern goes further.

The river that reaches the Atlantic in front of our house drains an enormous amount of untreated sewage and storm water runoff. Much of the floating stuff ends in cesspools behind houses with only postage stamp lots. This was the case in New Jersey a century ago, but now small lot housing goes into a central system. In most of our communities you need acres to properly treat sewage and cesspools are no longer allowed.

The water system in the area relies on cesspools for each house, some no more than row houses with tiny back yards. Most effluent runs into street gutters that drain into the river and out to sea.

The water system in the area relies on cesspools for each house, some no more than row houses with tiny back yards. Most effluent runs into street gutters that drain into the river and out to sea.

But here most of the effluent from washing machines, showers, and dish washing as well as grease, waste fuel, and all of the other runoff of a dense human community runs down the street gutters and directly into the river that flows past our house. Moreover, the reader should remember that poor communities in places like northern Brazil are in greater danger of contamination because many chemicals sold here are unavailable in more affluent countries because of their toxicity. And forget about those ubiquitous helpful reminders in water quality-conscious communities such as the United States, Europe, Australia and other countries with longer histories of development. Here most people are unaware of the impacts of poor sanitation. On top of it all is the abundant rain, which creates torrents of runoff that cleanse the streets of all kinds of organic and inorganic detritus.

The mechanic fixing our generator drains the water-contaminated diesel fuel into the street gutter.

The mechanic fixing our generator drains the water-contaminated diesel fuel into the street gutter.

The obvious conclusion is to stay away from the fish, shellfish, and any other edible life that comes from these waters, but here is the thing – not only do we not know what is the best thing to do, there is no way of finding out because no one is really looking.

A Google Earth map showing the watershed of the river flowing out to the point on which our house is located. Nearly the entire area is settled.

A Google Earth map showing the watershed of the river flowing out to the point on which our house is located. Nearly the entire area is settled.

Finally, how does this affect the shorebirds we see feeding within these threatening waters? Is this wintering area a source of contamination that ultimately finds its way into the young born in the Arctic? It’s an important question, one that just may be the one way we can serve this community.