Dam sanitation issues in the Amazon by Cristina Gauthier

Monday, June 12th, 2017 | Author:
Cristina Gauthier  is a student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences

Cristina Gauthier is a student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences

As a PhD student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences with a strong background in Environmental Engineering, my research focuses on the environmental and social impacts of dams in the Brazilian Amazon.

Hydroelectric power accounts for 65.2 percent of the total domestic electricity generated in Brazil.  This has led to heavy investments in hydroelectric development within the Amazon Basin, which holds 42.2 percent of Brazil´s hydroelectric potential. The most recent and largest hydroelectric project in the region is the Belo Monte dam, third largest hydroelectric dam in the world. The prevalence of septic systems in the Amazon region, coupled with the widespread use of water wells, and a rising water table from the dam construction which blocks water flow, has created sanitation and health concerns for communities upstream of the dam. These sanitation issues are expected to reoccur in Amazon communities facing future dam construction projects.

I carried out summer field work in 2016 and mapped densities and locations of septic tanks and water wells in Altamira, Brazil, the host city of the Belo Monte Dam. I also interviewed government officials and residents and found that construction resulted in an increase in population and water use; it has also resulted in an increase in solid waste and wastewater. Most homes rely on septic tanks rather than a connection to the local sewer system, and many households rely on wells for access to water. Thus, as the dam reservoir fills, the rising water table increases the likelihood of groundwater contamination from septic tanks, putting the health of Altamira’s population at risk.

In April 2017, ESPP awarded me a travel grant which gave me the opportunity to present the most recent findings of my research at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in Boston, MA. My presentation highlighted the discrepancies in Public Policies regarding water management and basic sanitation and their actual implementation in the case of the Belo Monte dam. It summarized surveys and semi structured interviews carried out during the summer of 2016 and revealed many gaps between Brazil´s progressive national policies and Altamira´s reality. My work was subsequently submitted for publication after the AAG meeting and I am currently preparing a second manuscript for publication.

It was an extremely fulfilling experience to be able to gather with geographers from across the globe. It was also an enormous pleasure to advance my network and stay in touch with other professionals interested in similar research. Thank you again to ESPP for helping to provide this opportunity!

Cristina Gauthier is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography. She researches environmental impacts, mainly on sanitation, brought forth by dam development in the Amazon. Her trip to present her research at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston this spring was funded in part by ESPP.

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