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Sugar Cane Industry as a Source of Water Pollution – Case Study on the Situation in Ipojuca River, Pernambuco, Brazil

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The Ipojuca river, a river in Northeast Brazil extending from west to east, is situated in the semiarid interior and rainy coastal zone of Pernambuco state. The river basin covers an area of 3,514 km2, with a total river length of 215 km. The water flow regime is characterized by the annual change from dry to rainy season as well as periodically occurring dry cycles. Mean flow rates vary between 2 and 35 m3 s−1. The dominant impacts on water quality of the river are domestic sewage input in the upper catchment and sugar cane cultivation and processing in the lower catchment. Long-term monitoring data used to demonstrate the impact of sewage discharge on the river’s self-purification capacity indicated a severe change to the worse in the lower course. One reason is the use of stillage (wastewater from cane processing) for fertilization and irrigation (fertigation). Pathways of contamination have been identified by evaluating cultivation and processing techniques of a bio-alcohol factory with annexed sugar cane cultivation. The river’s main ecological problems are water heating, acidification, increased turbidity, oxygen imbalance, and increased coliform bacteria levels. Precipitation-related wash-off and wash-out causes significant contamination within one to two days after rainfall. The increase in coliform bacteria is a consequence of secondary contamination. To determine the impact of the sugar cane industry on the river, the Brazilian bio-alcohol program must be subject to a critical evaluation. Environmentally friendly sugar cane cultivation methods need to be developed, and sugar cane factories must use waste-reducing technologies and water cycling processes in order to protect the region’s water resources.

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The authors would like to thank the Usina Ipojuca S/A sugar cane factory and its director, Francisco Luiz Dubeux Dourado, for their kind cooperation. CPRH for their support to the laboratory and field work and CAPES/DAAD for financing the cooperation program UNIBRAL.

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Correspondence to Günter Gunkel.

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Gunkel, G., Kosmol, J., Sobral, M. et al. Sugar Cane Industry as a Source of Water Pollution – Case Study on the Situation in Ipojuca River, Pernambuco, Brazil. Water Air Soil Pollut 180, 261–269 (2007).

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