Water scarcity and water quality are acute problems for millions of rural households across the world, affecting health, education, and economic outcomes. Access to safe and reliable water remains a challenge for 780 million people worldwide, most of whom live in low density rural areas. While in urban settings piped water networks working with large reservoirs and underground aquifers are viable solutions for water access, for families living in low-density rural settings an economical solution to water supply is yet to be found. In the Brazilian Northeast region we study, comprising 9 states home to 22 million rural inhabitants spread over 974,752km2, 96% of households in rural areas have inadequate or semi-inadequate water and sanitation. The region is populated by small landowners dedicated to rain-fed agriculture. For the majority of these families the main sources of water are seasonal rivers and small community reservoirs at the foot of hills which replenish during the rainy season. Vulnerability to drought is very high, and families cope with water scarcity by restricting use, depleting savings to purchase water, and migrating temporarily or even permanently. Even when water is available during the rainy season, in terms of health, drinking surface water has a high likelihood of being contaminated causing children to suffer from chronic diarrhea and other illnesses that prevent absorption of micronutrients essential to physical growth and cognitive development.
In this context, we conduct an impact evaluation of a novel water technology being rolled out to address water access in the rural Northeast. It consists of providing households (free of charge) with a large residential rain-fed water cistern to households in rural areas lacking other water sources (No piped water, no pre-existing water cistern). The cistern intervention we study consists of a 16,000 liter reinforced concrete cistern for residential use, which is filled during the rainy season with water running from the house’s rooftop, and – in theory – should provide families enough water for cooking and drinking during the dry season. The cistern technology was a proposal of the NGO community in Brazil as a solution to water access in the region after a major drought in the late 1990’s exposed profound structural water vulnerabilities. Since 2003, the Brazilian government has been working with a network of organizations on a program to install one million roof-fed rainwater cisterns that will serve roughly five million rural people in the region. With support from AECID (Spanish International Development Fund for Water and Sanitation) we implement a rigorous randomized control trial of this technology and its impacts at household level. We address key questions about effects of the cistern on water availability, water quality, children’s health, labor market outcomes, and educational outcomes.
An additional data collection effort was implemented on the same sample in 2012 and 2013 financed by SSHRC to study how the cisterns affected political interactions between households and local politicians.