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São Francisco Diversion: Brazil Vows Water for All But Elite Will Get It

Dom Luiz Cappio at the São Francisco shore The implementation of one of the most controversial mega-projects of the Lula government is imminent: the São Francisco river transposition, known as the Transposição. With this megalomaniac enterprise, which will benefit predominantly the export-oriented agro-business, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula wants to make history in the poor semi-arid region of Northeast Brazil.

But this polemic project reveals severe political, economic and regional conflicts of interests. It is criticized by experts as well as legal authorities.


In 2005 the progress of the project was interrupted for a short time due to bishop Dom Luiz Cappio’s hunger strike. However, since the beginning of the year the government is pressing to start the construction by all means, regardless of the ecological and social consequences.


The euphoria about biofuels, especially sugarcane ethanol, means additional instigation to reclaim land for irrigated sugar cane plantations. The ambition to encourage the export-oriented agro-business in the Northeast seems to justify any ways and means for the government.


Since the beginning of June, military battalions are preparing the construction works for the canals. This government procedure, to bypass the ongoing legal opposition proceedings against the project, using military operations for the construction works, evokes memories of dictatorship.


In many aspects the plan reminds the megalomaniac projects of the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1970s, like the infamous Transamazônica road construction. The Transamazônica, linking the states of Amazonas and Pará, is 5,000 km long, but only 175 km are asphalted.


The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), Movement of Dam-Affected People (MAB), Movement of Small Farmers (MPA), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the Pastoral Fishers Commission (CPP) and many other social movements formed a unified alliance with fishers’ communities and indigenous people to stop the beginning of the construction by radical actions if needed.


The Pharaonic work of the São Francisco river transposition includes the construction of two canals 400 and 220 km (250 and 140 miles) long, which are supposed to transport 26.3 m³ (928.8 ft³) of São Francisco waters to rivers north of it.


Therefore considerable altitude difference has to be overcome by pumping the water up 165 m (525 feet) – northern canal – and 364 m (1194 feet) – eastern canal. In total the project includes nine pumping stations, 27 aqueducts, eight tunnels and 35 water reservoirs as well as two hydroelectric plants.


According to the current version of the project, 70% of the water will be used for irrigation purposes, 26% for urban use (mainly the city of Fortaleza, capital of Ceará state) and 4% remain for the rural population. The project will benefit the most the agro-industrial sector (e.g. fruit and sugarcane plantations and shrimp farms).


But the official propaganda cleverly misuses the problems of rural water distribution and the resulting misery in order to make the billions of investment acceptable to public opinion. In fact, the poor riverine communities like artisanal fishers, indigenous people and small farmers, whose livelihood entirely depends on the river will be the losers. Instead of democratizing water resources, this mega-project will further concentrate control in the hands of the ruling elite.


Even international donors could not be convinced about the virtues of this plan. A World Bank study argues against granting a loan for the project, since, they reason, the positive effect on poverty reduction could not be proved.


The main financing strategy will be the transfer of the costs to the water users. With the São Francisco transposition water costs are expected to rise five fold. This means, that once again the Brazilian society is supposed to pay the costs of agricultural goods grown for export.


The transposition is a extremely costly enterprise with very doubtful social benefits. The project will consume half of all public investment in hydrologic infra-structure, which are defined in the program for acceleration of economic growth (PAC). For the next four years investments of 6.6 billion reais (US$ 3,4 billion) are earmarked for the project. The yearly operation expenses are estimated in 93.8 million reais (US$ 48.7 million).


And there are much cheaper and more effective alternatives to the transposition project. A recent study carried out by the National Water Agency (ANA), for example, shows that the water supply problem faced by the Northeast can be solved through 530 decentralized projects in 1,112 municipalities at half the cost of the transposition project.


The critics of the project point out that the problem of the semiarid region is not the lack of water but the just distribution of existing water resources, as those retained in the more than 70.000 small, medium and large reservoirs and dams, which amount to 37 billion m³ of water. The drought problem in the northeastern semi-arid region depends on an efficient management of the available water and is not to be solved with one single Pharaonic project.


Brazil’s Supreme Court is still analyzing the legality of the construction permits. Several legal aspects are being questioned including the lack of authorization from the National Congress for water resources to be utilized in indigenous lands.


Lawyers also stress the lack of a clear consideration of the impacts that the project may cause on historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural and architectural heritage as well as on traditional populations in the São Francisco river watershed in the environmental impact report (EIA/RIMA).


Furthermore the destination of the transferred water for irrigation purposes is disregarding a decision made by the São Francisco River Watershed Committee, which approved the use of this water only for human and animal consumption.


Many experts also alert to the fact, that this government project completely ignores the climate change scenarios. According to independent studies, global warming in the Brazilian Northeast might result in a decrease of up to 20% of the runoff of the São Francisco River.


The name of the company that will get the contract is to be published in September. However, one of the construction consortiums which applied for one of the most costly sections of the canals, Gautama, is currently involved in a corruption scandal.


In recent weeks the Brazilian federal police uncovered corruption schemes involving construction firms and politicians. These scandals confirm the suspicion, that the São Francisco transposition project is just one more mega-project, whose main goal is to divert public resources to the powerful building industry, which is known for corrupting politicians to get their hands in public moneys.


So far, the most startling protest action against the transposition was the eleven day hunger strike by Bishop Dom Luiz Cappio in October 2005, which drew worldwide attention to the São Francisco river issue.


The hunger strike only ended when the bishop got assurances that there would be a dialogue between the government and civil society. But this dialogue turned out to be restricted to only one seminar in May 2006. The government promise of a long term public debate with the affected people on the issue was not kept.


People who live in the São Francisco river area and whose livelihoods depend on the river are not being heard in relation to the river transposition project. Indigenous people of the Truká, Tingui-Botó, Pankararu, Kiriri, Atikum and Tuxá peoples, quilombola communities (descendants of slaves who escaped from their masters in the past and set up their own communities), besides fishermen and small farmers are systematically ignored by the official studies on the project.


During the past few months many protest actions were organized by the traditional riverine communities. The highlight was a one week protest camp in Brasília in March. However, the integration ministry, responsible for the project, did not react in any way. The government’s refusal to dialogue might lead to a radicalization of the protest against the authoritarian top-down policy of the Lula administration.


As the government recently announced the beginning of the constructions in the end of June, the fight against the project concentrates on protest activities near the construction site, where settlements of indigenous groups will be directly affected.


A large articulation of social movements, indigenous groups and environmental organizations will gather soon near the military bases constructed in the middle of the semiarid region trying to draw public attention to the ongoing disaster.

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