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Adaptation to climate change through agroforestry systems and greywater recycling

In the project region in the Sertão do Pajeú and Sertão do Araripe, two regions in Brazil’s semi-arid zone, most people make their living from small-scale agriculture. However, large-scale deforestation, overgrazing and climate change have led to increasing soil erosion and degradation. There is a shortage of water. This project introduces a technology that is designed to enable farming families to collect, treat and reuse lightly polluted domestic wastewater, so-called greywater. At the same time, the families are given guidance in how to establish land use systems that reduce greenhouse gases and slow down desertification. 


Country / Region / Place
Brazil / State of Pernambuco

Target group
100 vulnerable farming families (500 people) of the Semiarido in the Northeast

Funding requirement
485,016 Swiss francs

Project duration
01.01.2018 to 30.06.2019

Project number

Project objective
The living conditions of smallholder families are improved thanks to reducing their vulnerability and increasing resilience to climate change and desertification, and civil society is strengthened. 

Project coordinator
Esther Belliger, Tel: 041 419 24 41; ebelligernot shown@caritasto make life hard for spam

Africa / Latin America



After years of economic boom, Brazil has been in the grip of a severe economic and political crisis since 2011. This is reflected in the average per-capita income, which dropped from around USD 13,200 in 2011 to just USD 8,700 in 2016, a decline of more than 30 per cent. Although the proportion of Brazilians living in absolute poverty has been substantially reduced since 1990, and Brazil’s social programmes are internationally considered as exemplary, these and other social achievements are in grave jeopardy because of the deteriorating economic situation.

Despite all the achievements and progress of recent years, Brazil continues to exhibit huge social and regional inequalities and deficits between individual regions and population groups. Thus, in the Northeast, the so-called poorhouse of the country, where the project is located, certain social indicators remain at the level of Sub-Saharan African countries. The region is characterised by backward small-scale agriculture, huge latifundia, little industry and the absence of state structures in many rural communities. The proportion of poor people is extremely high at 45 per cent of the total population.

The present project focuses on the Sertão do Pajeú and Sertão do Araripe in the state of Pernambuco, characterised by a hot and dry climate. These regions are among the semi-arid zones of Brazil, the so-called semiárido. Rainfall is limited to a mere three to five months each year, and occurs only irregularly during this period. Pressure on the soil and water reserves has greatly increased in the last decades, due to massive logging for industry and fuel, overgrazing and climate change. The consequences are soil erosion and the accompanying advance of desertification. 

The population in the project region is mainly engaged in smallholder agriculture.  It grows maize, beans and manioc in rain-fed cultivation, of which a small proportion is sold in the local markets. More than half the families have no running water. They get their drinking water and water for personal use either from the rainwater collected in a cistern, or buy it from a potable water tanker which does not, however, supply all the remote communities. Healthcare in the villages is precarious, and the farming families mostly only have access to village health workers. The level of education is low, around 28 per cent of the inhabitants aged 18 and above are illiterate. 

The region’s main problem is the scarcity of water. The corresponding infrastructure (cisterns, water pumps, retention basins) is inadequate and is not always adapted to the conditions. The farming families usually do not have sufficient water for their domestic needs and for irrigating their fields. For this reason, there is a need for additional investment in the water infrastructure and in further training for the farming families, in order to increase the production of food crops and fodder plants and enhance their income.


What are we doing?

The two partner organisations, Caatinga and Sabiá, which are jointly implementing this project, have nearly three decades of experience in cooperating with vulnerable farming families in the semi-arid region. Both organisations have been successful on several occasions in carrying out lobbying actions and have a wealth of experience in implementing innovative water projects.

In the present project, the living conditions of 100 smallholder families (around 500 people) in the semi-arid area are improved. The benefiting farming families normally own small plots of between one and twenty hectares. Because of their low income, most of them receive financial support via the government’s social programme ‘Bolsa Familia’. With the introduction of agroforestry systems and technologies for the treatment of domestic water, water availability is increased and agricultural production is enhanced.

One component of the project is the introduction of a technology for the collection and treatment of greywater, i.e. of domestic water that is not very polluted.  In cooperation with the participating farming families, a system is installed in each of the 100 households consisting of a four-stage biological filter, a cistern for collecting the treated greywater, as well as a simple irrigation system. The installation is sufficient for the daily treatment of up to 500 litres of greywater. The families use the recycled water for the production of vegetables, fruit, green fodder and medicinal plants. In this way, they improve their nutrition and are able to produce small surpluses which they can sell on the local market and thus increase their income.

At the same time, the project team guides the smallholder farmers in establishing so-called agroforestry systems – land use systems in which arable crops are combined with trees and/or livestock. Research has shown that these systems have the capacity to absorb quite large quantities of carbon dioxide and thus contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Moreover, agroforestry systems lead to an increase and greater density of flora, which slows down desertification. Thanks to this, the production bases of the smallholder farmers can be preserved in the long term. 

The project does not, however, limit itself exclusively to giving direct support to the farming families. Another focus of the two partner organisations is to influence government policies for semi-arid regions. With specific events, they aim to persuade representatives of government authorities of the added value and the dissemination of social technologies, so that they are adopted as public policies. In addition, Caatinga and Sabiá are active in regional, national and international civil-society networks in order to disseminate knowledge about the challenges facing semi-arid regions, measures of fighting desertification and adaptation to climate change, both in Brazil and in Latin America. For this purpose, they produce information brochures as well as radio and social media programmes in which the problems of the region and the solutions applied in the project are publicised. 


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