Articulação Semiárido (ASA), Semi-Arid Articulation Brazil is building cisterns to improve access to rainwater storage in the drought-prone region of Northeastern Brazil. Research revealed cisterns are changing political relationships too.

With funding from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), ASA set the ambitious goal of building one million cisterns in the semi-arid region of Brazil’s Northeast. Early in the endeavor, FOS Co-Director Gustavo Bobonis joined a research team that investigated the impact of the cisterns on local politics.

The 28 million people who inhabit the mostly rural area of Northeastern Brazil have disproportionately low incomes compared to the rest of the country. One source of their economic vulnerability is the recurring droughts prevalent in the region. That economic vulnerability makes them prone to clientelism, a form of political corruption that amounts to citizens ensuring their access to resources and infrastructure in exchange for their public support of local politicians.

The research partners sought to understand how access to rainwater storage might alleviate economic vulnerability. More specifically, how would a citizen’s ability to manage drought risk on their own change the landscape of municipal politics?

“Our results suggest that economic vulnerability contributes to clientelism because citizens do not have adequate resources or insurance to protect against risk. Clientelism often helps vulnerable citizens cope with uncertainty and adversity, but even if vulnerabilities are reduced, clientelism may continue. Policies and practices are needed to adequately protect citizens from shocks like droughts, illness, and unemployment.”

Gustavo Bobonis, Professor of Economics, University of Toronto

ASA is still at work building the one million cisterns. Bobonis and the team of academic research partners plan to work with the Brazilian Ministry of Integration and Regional Development and AECID to revisit the approximately 1300 participants in the original RCT. They hope to study the long-term impact of reduced economic vulnerability on the political culture of the semi-arid regions of Northeastern Brazil.