Finally, fieldwork is possible!

Visit to Ceará, Northeast Brazil – November-December 2021

Eventually, after waiting a long time, towards the end of last year we received permission to visit Ceará. COVID-19 levels were considered to have declined sufficiently, vaccination rates were high enough, and mandatory precautions were established enabling our visit. Despite working closely together over the last year or two, several of the 3DDD research team had never previously met face-to-face, or had never visited the study site. This trip would be a great opportunity to get to know each other better, gain a better understanding of the project area and its people, and make plans for research activities in 2022.

Week 1 – Fortaleza

Our main project partner, FUNCEME (Foundation Cearense for Meteorology and Water Resources), provided us with space in their office in Fortaleza. The first week was spent sharing findings and plans with FUNCEME and CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development), the latter also have staff based at the FUNCEME office working on the Sertões project aimed at improving rural resilience. There are many overlaps between the Sertões project and 3DDD and we will be collaborating on many aspects of our research.

Planning the week’s field visits
The FUNCEME Office (a former convent)
Joint seminar between the 3DDD and Sertões projects

In between the meetings and seminars, as a team we trialed participatory 3D modelling (P3DM). P3DM is a participatory mapping method and tool for the capturing and sharing of knowledge and experiences by a wide range of stakeholders. Applying this method could foster communication and stakeholders’ participation. This could enable us, as researchers, to identify, for example, drought impacts specific to certain areas or groups, understand causes of spatial variability in vulnerability, and learn about different drought adaptation and mitigation strategies. Participants could benefit from raised awareness of drought experiences of different stakeholder groups, a forum for discussion potentially increasing trust and respect to contribute towards conflict resolution, visualisation and knowledge sharing of drought adaptation and mitigation strategies, and a 3D model housed in the community that can be used for water and land allocation and management.

P3DM is a tool we hope to employ in the field so we thought, after completing many online training modules, we should try it out for real first. We learnt that all materials are not necessarily easy to get hold of, which materials are better than others, and that it is a time-consuming process. What made us first consider P3DM was its novelty. The idea of building a physical model with the help of communities appealed to us with the expectations of bonding with the participants, establishing genuine trust and having a relationship that would go beyond the interviewer-interviewee as can happen with researchers who are external to the geographic location of a study. We liked the idea that a 3D representation of the landscape would pique the curiosity of the participants and encourage their participation as it would be a change from the more routine workshops and interviews. However, building this model by ourselves first turned out to be extremely time-consuming and required a lot of focus. We also wondered if it was wise to put into children’s hands knives and lighters needed to sculpt the model. We are currently uncertain regarding where this modelling process would be most useful, as well as how it could benefit both the research of each of the 3DDD team and the interests of the local stakeholders. We are questioning if such a time investment of both parties would be worth the outcomes.

Construction of a 3D model of the Banabuiú Basin. The photos, starting at top left, show the necessary stages of model construction, from tracing contours, to cutting out and assembling the topography, to gluing on the papier-mâché, then painting and labelling features. The process culminated in discussions based around the model while in the field, during various meetings, and at a conference.

It was a busy week working long hours but we got the chance to sample lots of the local food and drinks during lunch breaks and in the evenings. We even found time to go to the beach!

Some of the most productive meetings were held in restaurants and at the beach!

Week 2 – Banabuiú Basin (inland Ceará)

As we drove inland, forests and cashew plantations gradually gave way to dry scrubland as we entered the semi-arid sertão. The first stop after a few hours was the Cedro Dam in Quixadá. This is not only the first dam in Brazil but is the first major modern hydraulic work on the South American continent. It was built between 1890 and 1906 with the aim of combatting the drought-induced famine and migration that plagued the region. It was designed – I’m learning now while Googling it a few weeks later – by British engineer J.J. Revy (I thought it looked familiar!). The dam sits within Quixadá’s famous granite monoliths, the sight of which made those of us who were new to the area suddenly understand the seemingly impossible features we had been gluing onto the 3D model. An important point to note, the reservoir upstream of the dam was almost completely dry.

The Cedro Dam in Quixadá – the oldest major modern dam in South America. Note the almost completely dry reservoir and the famous “Chicken Rock” monolith.

The week was spent in three municipalities: Piquet Carneiro, Milhã and Quixeramobim. We were accompanied by FUNCEME staff, building on relationships they had already established during recent field visits. Conversations and observations in various locations and with a range of stakeholders were extremely valuable in improving our understanding of how livelihoods and water availability are so intertwined in this region. A notable feature was the great range of water sources available to most people, all of which have different uses due to varying water quality and seasonality, which was a good example of a drought prevention and preparedness measure.

A few of Northeast Brazil’s drought coping water sources that we saw in a single week of field visits: large strategic and small informal reservoirs, small-scale desalination providing potable water from saline groundwater, private and solar pumped public boreholes, open wells, rivers, waste water reuse, cisterns filled from roofs or micro-catchments, and water trucks (carros pipas).

The large strategic reservoirs had dangerously low water levels; they are yet to recover from the 2012-2017 drought. However, given that our visit was timed close to the end of the dry season, we were surprised to see many reservoirs with plentiful supplies of water. Though discrepancies in volume of reservoirs quite close together was suggestive of poor siting of dams, unequal water use or extreme spatial variability in rainfall.

Várzea do Meio and Riacho Verde reservoirs. The photos were not taken years apart, before and after drought, but were taken an hour and 12 kilometres apart. Water use is similar thus reservoir placement clearly makes a big difference to how downstream communities experience drought.

In just a week we managed to speak to dairy farmers and cheese makers, beekeepers, irrigating fruit farmers, water truck drivers, rainfed farmers, representatives of COGERH (the government body in charge of water resources management), municipality mayors and agricultural secretaries, operators of desalination plants, and many others. Even passers-by in the street who saw us loading the 3D model in the back of the pickup came over for valuable drought-related chats.

Conversations, interviews and discussions with a range of stakeholders in Piquet Carneiro, Milhã and Quixeramobim.

Week 3 – Fortaleza

The third week back in Fortaleza was predominantly spent in preparation for and then attending the Water Solutions for Semi-arid Regions conference. This was predominately a matchmaking event between Dutch innovative technology providers and Brazilian ministries. We heard about many water purification and air-to-water systems that could provide solutions to water scarcity in Northeast Brazil. The 3DDD team were there to add science and policy perspectives to the technological discussions.

3DDD presenting in-person! So much better than a virtual conference. It was a two-day Brazil/Netherlands matchmaking event in Fortaleza on Water Solutions for Semi-arid Regions. The fascinating presentations brought together science, technology and policy for drought solutions.

Weeks 4 and 5 – Banabuiú Basin (inland Ceará)

While some of the team returned to the Netherlands, others headed back inland for more field visits. Piquet Carneiro and Quixeramobim were revisited and conversations with stakeholders continued. There was also the opportunity to see water infrastructure supplies for the construction of a major pipeline connecting the Fogareiro reservoir to Quixeramobim city.

A weekend hike among the Quixadá Monoliths
Construction materials for the water pipeline connecting Fogareiro reservoir to Quixeramobim city

While in Quixadá, we attended the meeting of the Banabuiú Basin Committee at Centro Universitário Católica de Quixadá. It was the first time in over 18 months that the meeting had the option of in-person attendance, in addition to being online. In the meeting, plans were discussed for the adoption of a new methodology consisting of five working groups with members from different basins linked by discipline, rather than each working group representing a particular basin. Objectives for the future were fixed and provisional hydrometeorological forecasts were presented by FUNCEME to enable water resources management planning for the end of the dry season.

Banabuiú Basin Committee meeting at Centro Universitário Católica de Quixadá
Banabuiú Reservoir at 8% capacity

We took a different route back to Fortaleza in order to visit the Banabuiú Reservoir. This is the largest strategic reservoir within the Banabuiú Basin with a capacity of 1534 million m3. However, prolonged drought, overextraction and high evaporation losses have resulted in the reservoir currently being only 8% full (for reservoir monitoring information see:


Overall, it was a successful visit. Relationships were developed with collaborating partners and stakeholders. Many areas of the study site were visited enabling us to make plans for research activities in 2022. Perhaps most importantly, the 3DDD team was strengthened by spending time together. We are all very much looking forward to the next field visit!

By David W. Walker, Louise Cavalcante, Sarra Kchouk and Esmee van de Ridder

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