Skip to content Skip to cookie consent
Tearfund home

Living on the banks of a plastic-choked river

Adriana and Kedyma share the trials and fears of life by a river in Brazil ruined by mismanaged waste.

Written by Seren Boyd | 22 Aug 2023

Adriana lives on the banks of a river choked with plastic pollution.

Adriana lives in a neighbourhood in Recife, Brazil where there is no waste collection, so people are forced to dump their rubbish in the nearby river. Image: Mocah Films / Tearfund.

‘Forgotten’ neighbourhoods in Recife face a barrage of complex issues but unmanaged waste and plastic pollution are making life particularly precarious.

Plastic bags hang high in the trees around Adriana’s home, a stark reminder of how far the floodwaters climbed. Many homes have a tell-tale tidemark part-way up the inside walls; some now lie abandoned.

Adriana has lived here in Recife, north-east Brazil, all her life. She remembers, as a child, seeing fish and turtles darting in River Tejipió which runs through her neighbourhood, Sapo Nu. Her mother used to wash clothes in its clear, blue waters.

Now, the river is choked with plastic bottles. The only wildlife in its waters are dead animals that people have tossed there, along with discarded sofas and mattresses.

‘We suffer here when there are floods,’ says Adriana. ‘There are mice, dead pigs and animals that people throw into the river that we see passing by. People have made the river an animal cemetery. So it's very sad, we are the ones who suffer the consequences.’

Leptospirosis, a disease carried by rats, is common among residents. And infection rates soar when the floods come, as they do most years.

That’s when the plastic-choked river disgorges its waters and its rubbish into houses built perilously close to its banks.

‘With this last flood, we looked out of the windows and there were beds, sofas just hanging there,’ says Adriana. ‘It looked as if a whirlwind had passed by.’

Rubbish clogs a river in Sapo Nu, a forgotten community in Recife, Brazil

Plastic bottles clog the river in the Sapo Nu neighbourhood. Image: Mocah Films / Tearfund.

Off the radar

Sapo Nu is what Adriana calls a ‘forgotten neighbourhood’. Many residents here are living hand to mouth.

The municipal waste vans don’t come to this part of the city so people use the river as a dump. There’s no safe sanitation system either so human waste goes the same way as all the other rubbish. 

‘Politicians hardly ever come here,’ she says. ‘From [street] corner to corner you only see sadness.

‘Only yesterday a woman asked me for help because she said that her child had been asking for a biscuit for two days and she didn't have any. I didn't have any to give her.’

But there is one place Adriana and her neighbours can be assured of love and support: the local church.

Coqueiral Baptist Church provided Adriana’s neighbour with food, and even gave Adriana money to buy biscuits for the child.

In fact, this church goes to extraordinary lengths to care for its community. In many neighbourhoods, when disaster strikes, the church is the first and only responder.

Plastic bags hang in a tree showing how high flood levels have risen

Plastic bags hang in a tree, a reminder of how high floodwaters climbed when the river flooded. Image: Mocah Films / Tearfund.

Rescue mission

In May 2022, the floods were particularly destructive, triggering landslides and claiming more than 100 lives in Pernambuco state.

When the waters reached Adriana’s windows, she, her son and nephew abandoned their home and took refuge on higher ground.

A short distance away in Tejipió, Kedyma’s family were in even greater danger.

They had woken at 6.30am that morning to find floodwater pouring into their home. They moved upstairs and started phoning the emergency services.

By the afternoon, the flood waters were two metres deep and the current strong. They were trapped and still calling for help.

Then, at about 3pm, a small boat appeared. Volunteers from Coqueiral Baptist Church had manned their search-and-rescue boats and were out looking for people in danger.

‘It was as if we were seeing God arriving because we were very desperate,’ recalls Kedyma.

‘Anything could have happened: there were too many people in the boat, we were battling the current, there was a boy with us who couldn't swim... But I knew that God was there with us.’

The mud swallowed all their most treasured possessions – but their faith has grown through their ordeal. And they’ve been moved by the faithfulness of the church, which also provided food for them – as it did for Adriana’s family.

‘[The man in the boat] said he had a sense he should come here because there was someone in need,’ says Kedyma. ‘Now we see that God cares about us, he hears us. I thank God every day.’

‘Anything could have happened... But I knew that God was there with us.’
Kedyma shares how perilious life can be next to a river choked with rubbish

Kedyma and her family were saved from the flood by a volunteer rescue service from Coqueiral Baptist Church. Image: Mocah Films / Tearfund.

Watching and waiting

Kedyma loves this neighbourhood – it’s where she grew up – but she and her husband, Suenilson, are thinking of moving away now.

‘Every time it rains, I get very scared and want to leave the house,’ she says. ‘Living on the banks of this river is very worrying: we don't know when the worst will happen.’

Many different issues combine to make life insecure here but, Kedyma and Adriana agree, one problem would be relatively easy to tackle: the rubbish.

If they had proper waste collection, if waste were properly segregated, if there was more recycling, if the big plastic-producing companies invested in non-plastic packaging. If only…

Suenilson comments that even their young grandson in Rio knows how to segregate waste. On a recent visit, when Suenilson went to put all the rubbish in one bin, his grandson corrected him. ‘He said, “No, Grandpa, not like that.” You put paper in one place, plastic in another. They were already learning about that there.’

For now, in Recife, all they can do is thank God for their church – and keep a watchful eye on the river.

‘Things here are very precarious,’ says Adriana. ‘We have nothing: all we have is hope that one day things will get better.’


Call on world leaders to end plastic pollution and its harmful impact on people living in poverty.

Sign the petition

Written by

Written by  Seren Boyd

Share this page

Share this page to spread the word and help support those in need.

Get our email updates

Learn about our work and stay in touch with Tearfund. Hear about our news, activities and appeals by email.

Sign up now - Get our email updates

Cookie preferences

Your privacy and peace of mind are important to us. We are committed to keeping your data safe. We only collect data from people for specific purposes and once that purpose has finished, we won’t hold on to the data.

For further information, including a full list of individual cookies, please see our privacy policy.

  • These cookies are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off in our systems.

  • These cookies allow us to measure and improve the performance of our site. All information these cookies collect is anonymous.

  • These allow for a more personalised experience. For example, they can remember the region you are in, as well as your accessibility settings.

  • These cookies help us to make our adverts personalised to you and allow us to measure the effectiveness of our campaigns.