Old Plan, Old River

Old Plan,
    Old River

California and Israel have been used as inspiration for several
irrigation plans in the Northeast. Until now, however, no plan has gone beyond the drawing
By Émerson Luís

The debate over ways to solve the northeast region drought problem is an old one. In
1855, for example, Marcos Antônio de Macedo, deputy from then Pará province, wrote a
report rebuffing those who called as unworkable a project to divert the waters of the São
Francisco river in order to irrigate the semi-desert areas.

Pressed by one of the many severe droughts in the region, emperor Don Pedro II in 1859
appealed to poet Gonçalves Dias and baron of Capanema to find a solution for the chronic
problem. The poet and the noble came out with a simple and practical idea: to import
camels. In years of drought the northeastern region could not transport its goods and
commerce had to stop since the donkeys and oxen that carried them were one of the first to

The camels were bought in Algiers and 14 of them arrived on July of 1859 in the port of
Fortaleza, Ceará, with four Algerian trainers. As reported in Renato Braga’s book História
da Comissão Científica de Exploração (History of the Exploration Scientific
Committee) the desert animals had a cool reception and the "moor" that
accompanied them were seen with distrust for being "forceful enemies of the Christian
faith". The camels didn’t resist the bad vibes and the northeastern weather.

The federal government has been incapable of establishing a policy to solve the
northeastern drought problem. In the last 20 years alone there were at least eight
different projects that were started and then abandoned. They had names like Polonordeste,
Projeto Sertanejo, Programa São Vicente, Projeto Padre Cícero, Finor Irrigação, and
Papp (Programa de Apoio ao Pequeno Produtor Rural—Program of Assistance to the Small
Rural Producer).

Finor Irrigação, for example, an ambitious project that envisioned the irrigation of
1 million hectares for the cultivation of grains, fruits and tubers, has never left the
drawing board. Simply they could not find money to fund the project.

In an article for Rio’s Gazeta de Notícias in August of 1878, when Brazil was
still an empire, writer José do Patrocínio, who had been sent to the Northeast to cover
the deadliest drought ever in Brazilian history—500,000 people died—commented:
"The tragedy of the national shame presented in Ceará has for stage all the vast
territory of this unfortunate province. (…) Expelled from their home by the whip made by
nature with the sun rays, the fate of the hapless is the peregrination about the country
until they find a town in which they keep on miserably postponing their vanishment into a

One hundred and twenty years later the shame, the tragedy, and the same location
endure. It is believed that half of the population of Ceará died of hunger in 1878. The
tragedy has not repeated itself in the same scale, but the more and less severe droughts
have been a cyclical phenomenon in the area. The ones from 1915, 1919, and 1932 were
devastating too.

Even though the Northeast agricultural potential, in special for fruit trees, was
discovered, tested, and approved in the mid sixties, it never led to an ample and
long-term project. As one of the best-known experts on drought in Brazil, José Otamar de
Carvalho, author of the often cited A Economia Política do Nordeste (The
Northeast’s Political Economy) noted: "The actions of development promoted under the
sponsorship of the State have been conceived and executed with a duration determined, in
great measure, by the need to mitigate the drought’s effects."

Experts see two mains reasons for the chronic postponement of a solution for the
northeastern drought: resistance by the big farmers, who are opposed to change their
traditional way of raising cattle and cultivating cotton, and the fact that the political
power has shifted in this century from the north to the south of the country.

The labor fronts were created during the four-year drought that started in 1979 and
affected 20 million people and 84% of the Northeast. The fronts initially were used in
private property with loans subsidized by the government. Criticism on this arrangement
changed the practice into emergency fronts in which the workers were used to toil in
government projects.

Paulo Pereira da Silva, 42, president of São Paulo’s Metalworkers Union, after a
recent visit to the Northeast wrote in the daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo:
"Since the past century, the drought and the development of the Northeast have been
treated with plenty of demagoguery and little action. Don Pedro II promised, in tears,
that he would sell to the last jewel of his crown to solve the drought problem, but the
crown is in a museum nowadays, with all its jewels intact."

Old Plan,
Old River

California and Israel have been used as inspiration for several
irrigation plans in the Northeast. Until now, however, no plan has gone beyond the drawing

Émerson Luís

To use the waters of the São Francisco river to irrigate the Northeast was a pledge
made by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso during the campaign. It is a mystery why
nobody has done this yet since the work costs roughly the same as what the government
spends in food and emergency work when there is a severe dry spell like now: $1.3 billion.
The São Francisco plan is an old one. It is always remembered when the situation gets dry
and tough on the backlands.

Historians tell that Dom João VI, who in 1808 installed the Portuguese court in Rio
after fleeing Napoleon’s troupes, already thought about switching the São Francisco
waters, an idea that was ahead of its times for technical reasons. Besides, the population
in the area was sparse when compared to the south of the country.

Backed by the study of engineer Tristão Franklin de Alencar Lima, who proposed a
system very similar to what is being presented today, in 1847, Ceará’s representatives
Marco de Macedo and Domingos Jaguaribe suggested taking the waters from the São Francisco
to the Jaguaribe river and from there to the dry riverbeds in the area. The idea didn’t go
ahead though.

The work promised by Cardoso should be completed by now, but it was never started. The
President wants four more years to start and finish the project. For that he would have to
be reelected first, an accomplishment that according to the latest opinion polls is far
from guaranteed. After years lost in some cabinet drawer, the São Francisco river plan
has to be redrawn. The new study with the expected environmental impact of the project
will cost at least a cool $15 million.

The state of Bahia has always opposed the project arguing that the water detour would
severely harm the state’s economy by threatening four essential power plants in the
region. To avoid a collapse, according to Coelba (Companhia de Eletricidade da
Bahia—Bahia’s Electricity Company), the government would have to build more power

When concluded the work would serve a population of six million people, more than
330,0000 hectares would be irrigated and 1,300 miles of dry riverbeds would be brought
back to life. The costliest component of the plan are powerful pumps—at least 18 of
them will be needed—that will take the river’s water to the dry riverbeds in
Pernambuco, Paraíba, Ceará, and Rio Grande do Norte. Each of these pumps can cost as
much as $10 million.

That would be something similar to the project that transformed semi-arid California
into one of the world’s greatest agricultural powers. While in California the yearly
average rainfall is 220 mm, the Northeast fares almost three times better with 600 mm. The
lack of water was solved in California thanks to the diverting of the San Joaquim and
Sacramento rivers in the North and the Colorado river in the south.

According to Antônio Evaldo Klar, professor at Botucatu’s Faculdade de Agronomia, in
the interior of São Paulo, the switch of the São Francisco waters is the only real
solution for the Northeast. "Any other project will be only a palliative," he

The federal government has spent at least $8.5 billion since 1988 to fight the
northeastern drought. The Dnocs (Departamento Nacional de Obras Contra a
Seca—National Department of Works Against the Drought) alone received $3.2 billion,
but the money went also among others to Codevasf (Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do
São Francisco—Company of Development of the São Francisco Valley), and Prohidro,
the Sudene’s irrigation program.

In 1972, another Ceará representative, Wilson Sá Roriz, suggested the construction of
a 150 mile-long canal, but the project was considered Pharaonic even for the general who
were in power at time and had tackled useless and lavish plans like the Transamazônica
road. Another plan with an estimated cost of $1 billion was developed in 1981 by the

In a surprising announcement, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso declared on June 3
that he will start very soon the preliminary work of diverting the São Francisco water
using the Nordestinos who are being hired for the emergency labor fronts. He blamed the
delay on the Union Audit Office, which was investigating how the studies on the
environmental impact of the project were commissioned.

The government says that the changes now are for real—you don’t have to believe
though—and that by 2006, seven million waterless Nordestinos will have plenty
of the liquid, which will be brought by a series of dams and channels that are budgeted at
$1.3 billion and will be financed by the World Bank and Japan’s Overseas Economic
Cooperation Fund.

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