Water supply in Emergencies: Dam rupture case in Brumadinho, Brazil

Water supply in emergencies: Dam rupture case in Brumadinho, Brazil

Water Youth Network member Sofia Corradi looks at the recent dam rupture disaster in Brazil and the response of authorities and the public to the resultant WASH emergencies.

By: Sofia Corradi (s.corradi@wateryouthnetwork.org)


January 25th, 2018. Announced tragedy. The mining sector was once again responsible for an environmental crime and social disaster after Vale’s tailings dam ruptured. The scenario this time was Brumadinho, part of Belo Horizonte Metropolitan Region, in southeast Brazil. Deaths and dismissed people are over 300, and the consequences are putting water supply in all São Francisco Basin in danger.

Feijão Stream was the first water source to be affected. It is part of the Paraopeba River Basin (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Paraopeba River Basin showing dam collapse and mud flow (New York Times, 2019)



Paraopeba River is part of São Francisco Basin, one of the main basins in Brazil (Figure 2) and the only source of water in a semiarid region.

Figure 2. Overview of São Francisco Basin, Brazil (UOL, 2019)


The NGO SOS Mata Atlântica started an expedition over 356 kilometers (221 miles) to monitor water quality across the river. Along the river there are cities, indigenous communities and human settlements of all kinds. The river was considered dead and the tailings wave already disembogued in São Francisco (SOS Mata Atlântica, 2019).

The Mineiro Institute of Water Management (Instituto Mineiro de Gestão das Águas – IGAM) which shares weekly notices recently stated:

“In general, it is observed that the highest values of the monitored parameters [basic parameters of water quality and contaminants] occurred especially in the first 40 kilometers of the Paraopeba River (…). In addition, there were oscillations for the parameters in the following weeks, mainly due to the occurrence of rainfall, which contributed to the remobilization of the material deposited in the river bed or new contributions of tailings in the Paraopeba River, from upstream stretches.” (Brasil, 2019)

Due to high contamination, the water supply was widely affected. Copasa, the public company that provides water supply service in many cities at Minas Gerais State, affirmed that despite the interruption of the catchment in the river Paraopeba since the rupture of the dam of the Mine of the Feijão, there were no imminent risks due to other reservoirs capacity (Copasa, 2019).

Águas de Pará de Minas, a public company that recently assumed the management of the water-scarce city Pará de Minas,  installed a 28 kilometers (17 miles) conduit at Paraopeba River and is already studying other possible solutions, including rotation and capture in the systems of neighboring cities (G1, 2019).

In Brazil, the rainy season normally lasts until March. As long as there is precipitation, water supply will be guaranteed. Bella Gonçalves, Belo Horizonte’s councilwoman who is representing social claims, affirms that the city is on the verge of a water collapse since the Paraopeba system was responsible for 30% of the water supply of Belo Horizonte and 51% of the metropolitan region (BHAZ, 2019).

Right after the disaster, displaced people were receiving water gallons and assistance. A couple of months later, they are being forgotten. The disaster is not on the spotlight anymore, contributing to forgetfulness on the part of society and no further support directed to the region. That led to other emerging situations, such as an indigenous community relying on an irregular connection in the city system.

How to rebuild systems and communities affected for the long term, while they stay ignored and capital and bigger cities attract interests to generate solutions? Guaranteeing water supply to smaller and peripheral communities is the bigger challenge. The most affected people are the most vulnerable ones, and there must be actions beyond the immediate emergency.

Social movements are pressuring the company and public power for environmental justice. Students, professors and volunteers from universities and other organizations are engaged on a program called Participa (“Participate” in English) that raises awareness with lectures, demonstrations, cultural activities, and research to direct solutions to the affected populations (UFMG, 2019). Young professionals of the NaAção social organization have been giving daily social and psychological support to the population. Yet, what is most worrisome is the neglect of the mining sector and the regulatory bodies for social and environmental welfare in the state and in the country.


Feature image sourced from BBC News


  1. BHAZ. BH Pode Ficar Sem Água. [https://bhaz.com.br/2019/04/05/bh-pode-ficar-sem-agua/]. Accessed 31 March 2019.
  2. Brasil. Ministério do Meio Ambiente. Informativo Diário dos Parâmetros de Qualidade das águas nos Locais Monitorados ao Longo do Rio Paraopeba Após Desastre na Barragem B1. [http://www.meioambiente.mg.gov.br/component/content/article/13-informativo/3744-informativo-diario-dos-parametros-de-qualidade-das-aguas-nos-locais-monitorados-ao-longo-do-rio-paraopeba-apos-o-desastre-na-barragem-b1]. Accessed 31 March 2019.
  3. Copasa. Paraopeba. [http://www.copasa.com.br/paraopeba/]. Accessed 31 March 2019.
  4. G1. Sem Poder Usar água do Rio Paraopeba, Concessionária de Pará de Minas Estuda Pedir Ajuda a Municípios Vizinhos. [https://g1.globo.com/mg/centro-oeste/noticia/2019/02/02/sem-poder-usar-agua-do-rio-paraopeba-concessionaria-de-para-de-minas-estuda-pedir-ajuda-a-municipios-vizinhos.ghtml]. Accessed 31 March 2019.
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  6. SOS Mata Atlântica. Rejeitos Contaminados de Rompimento de Barragem da Vale Chegam ao Rio São Francisco. [https://www.sosma.org.br/107943/rejeitos-contaminados-de-rompimento-de-barragem-da-vale-chegam-ao-rio-sao-francisco/]. Accessed 15 March 2019.
  7. UFMG. Fundep. Programa Participa UFMG Promove Encontro para Ações em Prol de Brumadinho e Recebe Inscrições de Voluntários. [http://www.fundep.ufmg.br/participa-ufmg-voluntarios/]. Accessed 15 March 2019.
  8. UOL. Bacia do São Francisco. [https://escolakids.uol.com.br/geografia/bacia-do-sao-francisco.htm]. Accessed 15 March 2019.