A sustainable water supply for Brasilia

Until now, more than 90 percent of drinking water in the federal district has come from the Rio Descoberto dam, 25 km from Brasília.

Scientific and technological cooperation between Germany and Brazil has a great tradition going back almost 40 years. Another example underlining this is the ECOGERMA environmental technology fair, held from 12-15 March 2009 in São Paulo and to be jointly opened by Annette Schavan (the German Federal Minister of Education and Research) and Sérgio Machado Rezende (the Brazilian Minister of Science and Technology). At the German government stand, among other things, scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) will be presenting a German-Brazilian project officially launched only less than a week before in the presence of the Governor of Brasília, José Roberto Arruda, and the deputy of the German Ambassador for Brazil, Hermann Sausen - the project IWAS Àgua DF. IWAS stands for International Water Research Alliance Saxony Àgua is the Portuguese word for water. DF means Distrito federal, i.e. the federal district of Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

In launching IWAS, the intention of the UFZ and Dresden University of Technology is to develop system solutions for the various water problems in five model regions of the world: Latin America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South-East Asia and the Middle East, always involving regional and international partners from research and industry. The project IWAS Àgua DF, under the lead of the UFZ and Dresden University of Technology in cooperation with the University of Brasília and the regional water supplier and sewage company CAESB, has the aim to develop a water management concept for Brasília. The project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF); the project partners will initially be provided with just under one million euros until the end of 2010.

Brasília, the capital of Brazil, was founded in 1960. The city was literally conjured up out of the ground within four years. It is in the Distrito Federal do Brasil (a federal district) which today includes 18 satellite towns which grew up, among other things, from workers' districts, (forced) relocations and new settlements. Over the last five decades, the population in this metropolis region has shot up. While only 36,000 people lived there in 1950, today there are almost 70 times as many, with about 2.5 million inhabitants in an area of 5,822 square kilometres. The federal district is not a continuous urban area, but, with a rather low population density and dominated by agricultural land, can better be compared with a small federal state in Germany - it is more than twice the size of the Saarland. Brasília is located in the tropical climate zone of the central plateau in the interior of the country at an altitude of 1,158 metres. The average annual temperature in the city is 20.7 degrees Celsius and the annual precipitation level is 1,555 millimetres. Average monthly temperatures hardly differ. Despite the high annual precipitation level, the extreme differences between the rainy season and the dry period create seasonal problems with the water supply.

In the years to come, the rapid population rise and climate change will lead to a drinking water deficit compared with demand. Until now, more than 90 percent of drinking water in the federal district has come from the Rio Descoberto dam, 25 km from Brasília, and from the Rio Paranoá. According to calculations made by the CAESB based on the current consumption per person and an unchanging population, the quantity of water which can currently be produced will no longer meet demand as early as 2010. For this reason, scenario-based concepts need to be developed, aimed at guaranteeing a sufficient supply of water in Brasília. Considerations must take every aspect into account, from cutting back on consumption to tapping new sources of ground water and surface water, or using cleaned waste water. "For a metropolis of millions, a solution based purely on a 'space station' solution, i.e. waste water purification, is of course a fantasy", says Holger Weiss, who coordinates the project on the part of the UFZ. This is why German and Brazilian partners in the project from the fields of science, business and politics got together from 2-11 March in a workshop in Brasília to forge initial plans for the ten working groups. What are climate scenarios like for the federal district, and what regional consequences can be expected? How is land used in the region, and how is that land use changing? What are the water cycle and the overall water balance like in Brasília? What additional resources can be used, and under what circumstances? What is the function of soils and sediments, and how do they interact with the surface water and ground water? How is the quality of water resources and drinking water? Do wastewater cleaning facilities have sufficient capacity and power? How can the water balance be modelled and scenarios developed? What data and information will this require? The aim of the IWAS Àgua DF is integrated water resource management (IWRM) for Brasília which, alongside possible technical solutions, should also include improved water policy approaches and facts to aid decision-making. Time is pressing: in the coming year, the first research results are to be used to improve the drinking water supply.

There is great international interest in German water expertise. German water research skills are strongly developed in certain regions and on certain topics, yet extremely fragmented; the combination of excellent regional water-related skills in IWAS is an example of how these skills can be brought together to deal with issues from the fields of politics, business and science in a more deliberate, efficient manner. Another example is the water alliance of the Stuttgart metropolitan region (WAMS), which unites the skills of the UFZ and water experts from the "Environmental Science and Technology" competence centre (universities of Stuttgart, Tübingen and Hohenheim). Its goal is to improve our understanding of solute fluxes in the water cycle at the catchment scale, as well as to develop monitoring, modelling and management strategies. Other regional water research alliances, each partnered by a Helmholtz Institute, are to follow.

Further Information:

Press release and pictures
International Water Research Alliance Saxony (IWAS)


Prof. Holger Weiß

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ
Phone: 0341 235-1253

Doris Böhme (UFZ press office)

Phone: 0341 235-1269
E-mail: presse@ufz.de