Wilson Passeto

This description of Wilson Passeto's work was prepared when Wilson Passeto was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Wilson Passeto is empowering ordinary citizens to take steps to combat urban water scarcity, by providing them with a series of incentives and technical innovations to reduce their water consumption. He offers training and support to a growing cohort of “water agents,” who then help to change the habits and behavior of their friends and colleagues, fostering a major culture shift across Brazil.

La idea nueva

In response to the growing threat of water shortage in Brazil's burgeoning cities, Wilson has instituted a number of incentives and support services to promote changes in individuals' water consumption, both at home and at the workplace. With more than 20 years’ experience working as a hydraulic engineer in the private and public sector, he is well aware of both the obstacles and the opportunities when it comes to changing the way Brazilian society approaches water consumption.
Wilson begins by training what he calls “water agents”: Employees and community members equipped with the knowledge and tools to combat water wastage in their homes and offices. These agents then teach what they’ve learned, along with the practical how-to strategies for reducing consumption, to their families and communities. He provides each newly empower water agent–and the institution that supports them–with technological tools, consulting services, and a supportive community. Each organization–be it private, public, or government-related–is then offered a platform for sharing best practices, and an incentive scheme to reward the most innovative water management projects.
Encouraging people to change their behavior, however, requires that they have access to the basic infrastructure and appropriate technologies needed to do so. To this end, Wilson is helping to design and market technological innovations aimed at improving efficiency and reducing waste. In partnership with one of the world's biggest water distributors, he helped to institute individual water measurement systems in commercial and residential buildings. To date, he has helped train more than 1,600 teachers and instituted new water-related teaching materials in more than 220 schools throughout a number of Brazil's major cities. He is currently adapting his training program to tailor directly to the needs of particular urban industries, and is launching a pilot program Costa Rica.

El problema

With supply already on the decline thanks to pollution and waste, Brazil’s rapid urbanization has led to a dramatic increase in demand for water. Indeed, in the last 20 years, water consumption in Brazil overall has doubled, while its availability per person has fallen by more than 300 percent since 1950.

While Brazil remains home to the second largest fresh water reserve in the world, little of this supply is available for urban consumption. With the vast majority of the water supply found in the sparsely populated Amazon region, 95 percent of the population must survive on only 20 percent of the country’s total supply. The southeast, for example–home to more than 40 percent of the total population–enjoys only 6 percent of the total fresh water available for human use. Meanwhile, the high cost of transporting remote rural resources to the cities has meant that many of the country's urban poor are denied access to basic water and sanitation services. More than 17 percent of residences currently lack access to the water grid, and 52 percent of the population is without access to the sewage system.

Among the most polluting and wasteful institutions are the cities' industries, hydroelectric plants, hospitals, schools and other organizations. Because the price of the water supply is kept artificially low and fails to account for the environmental costs of overuse, estimates hold that between 40 and 50 percent of collected water is lost in the distribution process through leakages, waste and misuse. The collective use problem is magnified in condominiums, home to many of Brazil's urban residents: because the water bill is divided amongst all of the residents, there is little incentive for any one individual to economize his or her water usage.

Most of the proposed solutions to today's rising demand focus on increasing the water supply, through mechanisms like rainwater capture, saltwater desalinization, and the purification of polluted water. Yet these options are typically costly and rely on inefficient technologies, and in the case of rainwater capture, often risk the health of consumers.

Meanwhile, most Brazilians lack access to information about how to conserve water and the appropriate technologies that improve efficient delivery, with the result that they, too, contribute heavily to the growing water shortage. Most people are unaware of the gravity of the problem, believing water to be an abundant, if not altogether infinite resource. Moreover, they lack incentives to reduce their consumption or otherwise fix leakages and curb wasteful practices.

While new technologies must doubtless play a considerable role in combating water shortage, they are ultimately only palliative, and apart from their expense, often generate environmental problems of their own. As a result, these innovations must be viewed as complements to a broader culture shift. Indeed, the greatest urgency lies in the need for a change in consumer consciousness, wherein every individual understands his or her role in either fueling or helping to combat water shortage and is equipped with the tools necessary to use it sustainably.

La estrategia

Wilson begins by recruiting employees from schools, hospitals, and the government and private sectors to participate in his free, eight-hour training program. Using a carefully crafted methodology and a series of concrete indicators, participants learn to evaluate their own water management habits and those of their employers. Through the program, they also receive certification to act as inspection agents for government authorities and distribution companies. Wilson is thus able to bring together government authorities, members of the private and citizen sectors, and administrators in school administrators and representatives of schools and hospitals, to discuss how to strategically manage the region's water resources as a group.

Participating organizations are then eligible to compete for the Water and City Prize in categories broken up by field into: schools, health and sanitation, industry, and services. The prize serves as both a chance for companies and public sector organizations to promote their cause, and as an important indicator of the sectors taking the lead in improved water management. To date, the prize has recognized 17 Best Practices in rational water usage, and offered a valuable window into the challenges and opportunities faced by employers looking to reduce their water consumption.

Wilson is beginning to offer tailored courses to organizations in particular fields, rewarding the best examples within each. He has already formed networks of schools and condominiums committed to reducing their water usage in the city of Sao Paulo, and is now doing the same among area hotels and hospitals. Having found that hotels have a particularly difficult time reducing their water consumption, Wilson launched a pilot program with Otton hotels to find simple and cost-effective solutions. He has launched similar partnerships with the Sao Camilo Hospital network, consisting of 38 hospitals in total, and Caixa Economica Federal, the federal bank of Brazil, which includes more than 1000 branches. Under this system, water managers will receive training, and go on to set up their own teams to enact the changes and plans formed during the course. The team with the best water management system will then receive the Water and City Prize. Wilson is now adapting the course to an e-learning format, to improve accessibility and extend his teaching to ever-widening networks.

Aware that the biggest challenges lay in commercial and residential condominiums, Wilson teamed up with Sabesp, one of the largest water supply companies in the world, and the Center for Development and Documentation of the Plastics Industry for Construction (CEDIPLAC), a leading technology firm he founded in 1994, to create the country's first effort to measure each unit's water usage independently. The project, called ProAqua, trains project planners, plumbers, architects, stonemasons, and construction experts to employ individualized measurement, and receive a one-year certification. When a residential or commercial condominium decides to alter its current measurement model, it can look for suppliers certified by ProAqua. The technology comes at a truly opportune moment, thanks to Brazil's booming real estate market and the growth in “green” design.

Wilson is particularly focused on training women in low-income communities, who are typically responsible for the majority water usage in the home, whether through cooking, washing clothes, bathing children, or other such activities. He developed a program to train women to construct their own water and drainage systems for their homes. By likewise serving as certified inspectors of the city’s water collection and distribution systems, the women are further empowered to pressure the men and leaders in their community to implement sewage collection networks and other such water-saving devices. Wilson’s other programs include a Drainage is Life program, an educational campaign regarding basic sanitation, and the creation of a Sanitation Dossier, which has already been distributed to more than 50,000 people in more than 500 Brazilian communities.

Wilson pairs these efforts with broader educational outreach intended to spark a cultural shift over the way Brazilian society approaches water management. Targeting his efforts at young people, Wilson has developed an educational program for school children and their parents and teachers. He helps teachers to convey valuable lessons and information regarding water availability and sustainable usage through comic strips, fairs, and other forms of entertaining media and activity. Participating teachers are further encouraged to develop their own water-related projects within the school, and Wilson provides them with tools to motivate teachers from other subjects to incorporate lessons of water management into their own classes. Wilson's Water in School program has already trained more than 1,600 teachers over the course of 20 hours, providing each one with a Teachers’ Manual with information pertaining to 12 water-related themes. Wilson then provides them with incentives to train two or three colleagues, with the result that more than 82,000 middle school children have passed through the curriculum in the 224 participating schools.

To this end, Wilson has established partnerships between Water and City and a host of schools, and other highly prominent efforts and figures, including a major sanitation campaign and Brazil's Secretary of Education. He is currently carrying out a pilot project in schools in Costa Rica, with plans to soon expand into other Latin American countries.

He has developed a thorough monitoring and evaluation system to prove the program's efficacy, and encourage others to follow its lead. In Cachoeira do Itapemirim, a city of 200,000 in Espirito Santo state, for example, the combined activities of Water and City and its numerous partners were found to have reduced water consumption by 30 percent over a five-year period. The program has born similarly positive results in the city of Sao Paulo, signaling that the methodology can be applied to any urban community, regardless of size or scope.

La persona

Born in 1944 in Araraquara, a city in the interior of Sao Paulo state, Wilson played as a child near the hydraulic works of his city, visiting the water and drainage treatment station and dams alongside the Tiete River. He went on to study hydraulic engineering and sanitation at university, and began to work as a trainee at the Special Service for Public Health Foundation, through which doctors specializing in sanitation work to protect the health of poor populations. Wilson would go to fazendas, large farm estates, on vacation to help educate families and laborers about well construction. Indeed, he has always appreciated and enjoyed the human side of engineering, and considers hydraulic engineering the most human of all.

Wilson later went to work with at the Urban Research and Planning Institute of Curitiba, where he helped develop many of the “ecological city's” hydraulic projects. Between 1964 and 1969, he frequently traveled overseas to learn more about urban water treatment systems and studied large scale hydraulic plants. In 1969, while working as a professor at the Federal University of Parana, Wilson began to work for Tigre, a leading company in the production of plastics for water. It was during this period that he began to establish institutional relationships with clients, the government and regulatory agencies. In response to the United States' Environmental Protection Act in 1972, he led an effort to introduce it to Brazil. He likewise closely followed international technological developments in his field, and helped ensure their entrance into the Brazilian market.

In 1994, Wilson created CEDIPLAC, a CO that helped establish conformity and quality control amongst urban construction companies and related fields, in partnership with the University of Sao Paulo. Wilson aimed to establish an organization that would bridge the academic and business aspects of hydraulic engineering, with an emphasis on social responsibility. He remains actively involved today, serving as the volunteer Executive Director of CEDIPLAC.

It was through his subsequent work with the Sao Paulo state government to create a governmental water program that Wilson realized that water management was as much an issue of education as it was of technological advancement. While aware that the quality of water conservation products must be improved, he considers helping the end users of water recognize its importance the key objective.