In Northeastern Brazil, Drought Runs The Economy Dry

The reservoir in Brazil's Poço Fundo has almost dried up.
The reservoir in Brazil's Poço Fundo has almost dried up.
André Filipe and Fernando Canzian

CARUARU â€" For months now, water taps in some of northeastern Brazil's cities have been running dry. Not during certain hours of the day. Or certain days of the week. But all the time. Morning and night. Day after day, with the exception of just two days per month.

And it's not just residents being squeezed by the severe water shortage. Because the crisis is affecting a major industrial area, a whole textile network that feeds the biggest production and outlet center in Latin America could disappear.

Two cities in the Caruaru region, located in the center of the Pernambuco state, are vital for Brazil’s north and northeastern textile industry: Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, where the Moda Center mall and its 15,000 points of sale can attract up to 100,000 people a day in June; and Toritama, the country’s second leading source of jeans. For both these cities, the raw material they most depend on, water, is desperately lacking.

There are solutions to this shortage. But they’re limited. In Riacho das Almas, a city surrounded by the countryside, wells up to 50 meters deep were dug to bring the salty groundwater to the surface. The water is then desalinated and distributed to the people via a system of tokens, which can be redeemed in what look like the old telephone booths Brazilians call “orelhão” (big ear). Each family can use two tokens per day, with each token worth 20 liters of water.

The city has 16 such stations across its rural area. Each of those cost 60,000 reais ($20,000), except for one which works solely on solar energy and cost nearly twice as much.

“It’s a very restrictive situation,” says Roberto Tavares, president of Compesa, a water distribution company owned by the Pernambuco state. “People in urban areas aren’t used to this. When you come into a street and see people lining up with buckets, it’s a difficult thing, both for the people on the receiving end and the ones who distribute,” he says.

Running on empty

Rainfall in the Caruaru region has fallen short of normal levels for four years. With another El Niño planned for 2015, the drought is expected to continue in northeastern Brazil.

The lack of water comes on top of falling sales in the textile industry, which is crucial for the region. Some wholesalers have already been reporting revenue losses of 30% compared to last year, leading to job cuts and shop closures.

On the roads around the industrial hubs of Santa Cruz do Capibaribe (100,000 inhabitants) and Toritama (41,000), the hundreds of Toyota transporters carrying shoppers to the outlet centers have been replaced by water tank trucks, driving ever further to bring the vital fluid. The biggest water reservoirs of the region have mostly dried up, with the ones in Poço Fundo and Jucazinho operating with only 5% of their total capacity.

In some cases, the distance these trucks have to travel has forced prices up by as much as 60%. Transporting 11,000 liters of non-drinkable water can cost up to 160 reais ($50). And with the Poço Fundo reservoir almost entirely dry, those trucks represent a lifeline.

The situation is even more desperate in Toritama, a city that lives essentially off its jeans factories. In Mamute, the biggest laundry in the area, as many as 8 billion liters of water were used every month for jeans only â€" about 40 liters per pair. The company has had to cut its consumption in half and a great part of that water is recycled. It cut work shifts by two thirds and reduced its workforce, with more layoffs expected in the near future.

“We had a water crisis. Now we have an economic crisis on top of that,” says Edilson Tavares, the owner of Mamute.

On the same street, a company called Rone Jeans faces the same ordeal. “We’re seriously considering laying people off now,” says José Ronaldo Silva, who owns the company and currently employs 75 people. “Even without water and reduced production, our stocks are jam-packed with clothes that quickly go out of fashion.”

In Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, home to Moda Center and its 120,000 square meters of clothing shops, people talk of “collapsing” sales due to the state of the economy in general, but also because of the water deficit. Before the crisis the region was boasting Chinese-style growth numbers. Now it's following the rest of the country into recession. In the whole of Pernambuco state, 44 cities are in “water collapse” and another 26 in a “pre-collapse” situation.

Nivaldo dos Santos Costa, one of the shopkeepers at Moda Center, says that his sales and monthly turnover of about 8,000 reais ($2,500) have dropped by 50% since the end of last year. His neighbor Lucinete Sobral says that production costs, in the meantime, have increased due to soaring inflation, but that she wasn’t able to raise their prices in compensation. Both voted for Dilma Rousseff in last year’s presidential election, and both now regret that choice.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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