Brazil and Rio Grande do Sul facing the global challenge of water resources management

Fresh water[1] is now considered one of the most precious and coveted assets in the world alongside oil and, for this reason, it has become one of the main matters of international disputes and conflicts. With the expansion of human activities, especially the industrial and agricultural ones, and the disorderly growth of cities, freshwater springs have been affected in an incisive way, which involves the reduction of both the quantity available and its quality.

Some conflicts may well illustrate the dispute over water resources in the world, such as in the case of Kashmir, involving India, Pakistan and China for the control of the springhead and the upper courses of the Indus River. In addition to this clash, there are those that occur in the Middle East (the place in the world where the greatest number of disputes over water disputes occur), such as those among Iraq, Syria and Turkey, territories that correspond to ancient Mesopotamia — therefore, bathed by the Tigris and the Euphrates — because of the decreasing flow of these rivers, caused by dams built by Turkey, and those involving Israel, Syria and Jordan for the control of the sources of the Jordan River (the main river in the region), located in the hills of Golan, which belonged to Syria and was invaded by Israel during the Six Day War, in 1967.

Although Brazil is not directly involved in any type of conflict for water resources and concentrates about 13%[2] of the total volume of fresh water in the world, the distribution of this asset across the territory is quite uneven. It varies according to geographic (geomorphology and pedology), climatic (precipitation regime and evapotranspiration rates) and sociodemographic characteristics, since the intensive occupation of the soil, especially when disordered, contributes to the reduction of water availability. In addition, another factor that contributes greatly to the disparity of access to water and, consequently, to water balance[3], is the loss of water quality due to the anthropic actions resulting from the activities of industry, agriculture and urbanization.

In quantitative terms, the Northeastern (NE) semiarid basins present the most critical situation due to the low water availability: there the annual precipitation volume may fall below 500 mm (in the rest of the region, it varies from 1,000 to 1,500 mm annually). In addition, the NE has only two perennial rivers (the São Francisco and the Parnaíba), the others are intermittent, that is, they only have water flows during rainy periods. These intermittent water courses correspond to about 22% of the total surface fresh water available in the region (AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS, 2016[4]; QUADRO et al., 2014[5]).

On the other hand, the basins of the Southern Region present critical situations due to the great demand for them and their low quality waters, both related to the high degree of urbanization and industrialization. Rio Grande do Sul, specifically, which has a great water availability (great density of courses and water bodies and important subterranean reservoirs), presents one of the largest water imbalances in both quantity and quality. The state collects only 31.2% of the waste produced and treats less than 13% of it, which is why it hosts three of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country: the Sinos, the Gravataí and the Caí — all located in the Metropolitan Area of Porto Alegre (RMPA), supplying more than 1.5 million people. Still in the RMPA, the municipalities of Canoas and Gravataí are among the 20 worst in Brazil in the sanitation ranking (which analyzes the situation of the 100 most populous municipalities in the country) (PESSOA, 2015)[6].

Agriculture, an important sector in the state’s economy — corresponding to around 10% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — is responsible for the reduction of quantitative water availability, since the main demand for fresh water in the state comes from irrigation activities (about 78% of the total used water). In addition, RS uses almost twice the amount of pesticides in its crops as Brazil’s annual average: 8.3 liters per inhabitant versus 4.5 liters per inhabitant. Excessive use of agrochemicals contaminates the soil, groundwater and surrounding watersheds, since rain drains the soil and carries those pollutants, affecting not only the quality of the waters, but also the whole ecosystem of the site (PESSOA, 2015).

The worsening of the imbalance between supply and demand for water is mainly due to the lack of adequate planning and management of water resources. In view of the increasing need to regulate water use in the country, Law No. 9.433/1997 (which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary) was made to provide more balanced access to water resources and to guarantee the environmental protection of freshwater sources. Also known as the Water Law, it instituted the National Water Resources Policy (PNRH) and the National Water Resources Management System (SNGRH).

The foundations on which this policy is based are guided by the premise that water is a “public, limited domain with economic value” which aims primarily to meet basic needs, such as human consumption and animal watering (BRASIL, 1997)[7]. The main objective of the PNRH is to “ensure the current and future generations the necessary availability of water, in quality standards adapted to their respective uses” (BRASIL, 1997, article 2, item I). To this end, it focuses on managing the water resources and monitoring their uses, based on a systematic view in which aspects of quality and quantity are seen as inseparable and on the shared management between the different spheres of the government, articulating the local, the regional and the national levels.

The main instruments used to materialize the PNRH are (a) the Water Resources Plans[8], which aim at making a diagnosis of the current situation and monitoring the occupation of the surrounding areas and the uses of water, besides serving as a basis for providing grantings and charging for the uses; (b) the categorization of water bodies into classes, according to their use, ensuring compatible quality for certain purposes and pollution combating operations; (c) the granting of rights of use and the proper charge for them, which ensures their quantitative and qualitative control as well as the right of access to water in accordance with environmental protection, adding an economic component to the management of water resources; and (d) the Water Resources Information System (SIRH), which aims to “collect, treat, store and retrieve information on water resources and factors involved in its management” (BRASIL, 1997).

The National Water Resources Management System is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the PNRH through the coordination of integrated actions for planning, regularizing and controlling the uses, the preservation and the recovery of water resources as well as charging for their use. The SNGRH comprises the Water Resources Councils (at the national and state levels), the Hydrographic Basin Committees and the Water Agencies (national and regional ones).

At the national level, the National Water Agency (ANA) was created as a federal entity for the implementation of the PNRH, aiming at operationalizing, controlling and evaluating water resources management actions.

One of the actions carried out by the ANA in fulfilling its role was the National Pact for Water Management, signed in 2011 (through the ANA Resolution No. 379) by means of the institutional articulation with the leaders of the state water resource management agencies, in order to strengthen the State Systems of Water Resources Management. To implement it, the National Pact for Water Management Consolidation Program (Progestão) was created in 2013, with the objective of offering financial incentives (of up to R$750,000 per federal unit, per year) to the states to subsidize actions and water resource management projects. The states join the program by being classified into one of the four typologies (A, B, C and D) which cover a set of goals that vary according to the “[…] complexity required in the water management as well as the institutional structure necessary to face the challenges posed to each state. “(AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS, 2015, p. 2) [9]. By late 2014, all states and the Federal District had joined the program.

The goals comprise up to 32[10] variables divided into different levels of complexity. The states must send in annual accounting reports and the compliance results regarding each variable to be able to receive the values corresponding to the achievement of the goals.

Rio Grande do Sul joined the Program in 2013 (Decree No. 50.741/2013) under the regional coordination of the Department of Environment and Sustainable Development (SEMA) and was classified into type B. The certification period defined for the state was from 2013 to 2017, but up to 2016, R$1,901,250.00 was transferred, and only R$257,817.70 was used. Regarding the achievement of the goals, for the certification process, RS had final assessment grades of 80% in 2014 and 73.5% in 2015 (AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS, 2015).

Besides joining Progestão, which guarantees important financial assistance for the implementation of public policies aimed at the management of water resources, the legal framework that the state has for the same purpose counts on the following instruments: the State System of Water Resources (Law No. 10.350, issued on December 30, 1994), the State Council for Water Resources, established by Law No. 10.350, of December 30, 1994, in compliance with the PNRH, the State Water Resources Fund (Law No. 8.850, of May 8, 1989), the State Plan for Water Resources, another requirement of the PNRH, which is in the process of being formulated and will become an important management tool and 25 Watershed Committees established and implemented.

The Watershed Committees are certainly the most active bodies in the fulfillment of the PNRH legal requirements. Most of these committees work in partnership with universities (public and private ones), carrying out important research, analysis and monitoring of the water quality and the occupations of the surrounding areas, and elaborate the Basin Plans, which provide technical subsidies for the management of the water sources according to the specificities of each basin. Unfortunately, the implementation of the management actions often runs into bureaucratic and/or political issues, because the limits of the hydrographic basins go beyond the political boundaries of the municipalities.

Therefore, although in legal terms, in both Brazil and Rio Grande do Sul, water resources management is well anchored, the implementation of actions aimed to reflect improvements in both access to water, in quantities and quality that are satisfactory to all users, and the environmental preservation of the sources and their surrounding areas is still below expectations. There is a need for greater articulation (often political) between the public authorities and other agents to enable compliance with the PNRH, in order to achieve the main goal pursued by the plan, which is to manage water resources to ensure adequate and equal access to water by all users, now and in the future, and the environmental preservation of water sources and the associated ecosystems.

[1] Fresh water corresponds to 2.5% of all the water available in the world, and only 0.27% of it (0.007%) is accessible in the form of surface water (mainly in rivers and lakes).

[2] The average flow of fresh water in the country is about 260,000 m3/sec., of which 205,000 m3/sec. (almost 80% of the total flow) is concentrated in the Amazon Hydrographic Region.

[3] It is the balance between the supply of water and the quantitative and qualitative demands (AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS, 2016).

[4] AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS (ANA). Conjuntura dos recursos hídricos no Brasil: informe 2016. 2016. Retrieved from <> on 3 July, 2017.

[5] QUADRO, M. F. L. de et al. Climatologia de precipitação e temperatura. Cachoeira Paulista: CPTEC/INPE, 2014. Retrieved from <>  on 8 July 2017.

[6] PESSOA, M. L. O Rio Grande do Sul corre o risco de enfrentar uma crise hídrica? Carta de Conjuntura FEE, Porto Alegre, 2015. Retrieved from <> on 6 July, 2017.

[7] BRASIL. Lei N.o 9.433, de 8 de janeiro de 1997. Institui a Política Nacional de Recursos Hídricos, cria o Sistema Nacional de Gerenciamento de Recursos Hídricos. 1997. Retrieved from <> on 3 July, 2017.

[8] Rio Grande do Sul does not have an implemented Water Resources Plan yet, but one is being developed.

[9] AGÊNCIA NACIONAL DAS ÁGUAS (ANA). O Progestão no Rio Grande do Sul. 2015. Retrieved from <> on 3 July, 2017.

[10] Type A has the smallest number of variables (17), and D has the largest number (32). Types B and C have 20 and 29 variables respectively.