The New York Times, in A River Runs Over With It, documents how bad sewage treatment is in Brazil. A 1992 UN conference on the environment in Rio caused the Brazilian government to promise big changes when it came to water treatment. Unfortunately, “after 20 years and more than $1.17 billion in investments from international agencies and the state government, not one of the four treatment stations that were built to process sewage is fully operational.”
The situation is now so bad that less than 55% of Brazilian households have treated water. So what is an eager to please government to do? More promises of course. This time they promise to spend $720 million to improve water treatment in Greater Rio, an area where currently “only half of the wastewater is collected and only 4 percent of that is treated.” Another $580 million has been slated for water treatment plants and sewer lines for 16 other cities.
This reminds me of the sad tale of Ghanaian investment at the start of one of my favorite development books: The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. My students are often dumbfounded by the idea that big investments like this might not work out and I think they sometimes like to think that the Ghanaian case as atypical, that perhaps Easterly has cherry-picked an extreme example to get their attention. As the Brazilian example shows though, it isn’t that uncommon. I’m hoping these next promises will work out better.