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BRAZIL
Controversy surrounds river diversion plan
José Pedro Martins
5/11/2006
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Transfer of water from crucial San Francisco River divides the country.

In school books, Brazil’s San Francisco River is called the "river of national unity" because it crosses five states: Minas Gerais in the southeast and Alagoas, Bahia, Sergipe and Pernambuco, in the northeastern region.

Nevertheless, a project to transfer water from the riverto other areas, which was adopted by previous governments and is presently advancing with the administration of current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, threatens the San Francisco, which has been dubbed the "river of disunity" by the population living along its banks.

The Integration Project of the San Francisco River with the Northern Region Basins is underway, headed by Lula’s National Integration Ministry. The project would transport waters from the San Francisco River to areas in the northeast of the country suffering from water shortages.

Lula called the project "a humanitarian question" and highlighted the lack of water in the northeastern corner of the country — a semi-arid region — calling it a "chronic problem."

The president promised that only an amount sufficient to supply the Northeast’s population with sufficient drinking water would be taken from the river.

The project’s beginnings

In September 2005, amid much controversy, the National Water Agency (ANA) granted the National Integration Ministry authorization to divert waters from the San Francisco River and since then, the government has increased the process to begin the works project.

The ANA’s decision allows for the diversion of 26 cubic meters (26,000 liters) of water per second to two northeastern areas. One area is the Ceara state, where National Integration Minister Ciro Gomes once served as governor. The flow could reach a daily maximum of 114 cubic meters (114,000 liters) per second, when the level of the Sobradinho Reservoir — the principal reservoir of the San Francisco River basin — reaches 94 percent of its capacity. Lula’s administration estimates that 12 million people could benefit from this project.

But many worry about the project’s repercussions on the environment and on the quality of life for the residents living along the riverbank.

Many environmentalists and scientists have criticized the project. Aziz Ab’Saber, one of Brazil’s most well-respected geographer, says the project "does not take biodiversity into consideration," such as the enormous variety of flora and fauna that exists in the river basin.

One of the fundamental physical characteristics of the San Francisco River Basin is that 57 percent is considered a semi-arid region because of the little rain the area receives in relation to other parts of the country. Ab’ Saber also notes that the project does not address how the high level of evaporation in the semi-arid region will affect the diversion of waters from the San Francisco River to these zones.

The project consists of a complex system of 591 kilometers (367 miles) of canals, 20 kilometers (13 miles) of aqueducts, 22 kilometers (14 miles) of tunnels and 26 reservoirs. A great deal of electric energy is required to ensure the transfer of the waters from low to high altitudes, further adding to the high cost of the project.

For many social movements and civil society organizations, in the end the project could benefit only to the Northeast exporting sectors — those who can pay for the water — not local communities.

Ab’ Saber shares this view. "This is an extremely expensive project that can only benefit those that already have resources, such as the big farms, which will increase in value," he said. "What guarantee is there that the poor will really benefit?"

With this reasoning, these social movements and organizations defend the river’s revitalization before its waters are transferred. These groups are urging the initiation of reforestation projects for lands that were cleared for farming and other industries, as well as the respect of the rights for the indigenous populations that live in the San Francisco River Basin.

Indigenous populations at risk

It is estimated that at least 18 indigenous populations living in the Northeast and Minas Gerais would be affected in some form by the project. Such is the case for the Truká, Xukuru, Pipipã, Tuxá, and Tumbalalá, Xukuru-kariri and Geripankó and Xokó peoples. Many of these peoples have not demarcated their territory yet, so a project of this dimension still brings an ethical question into play, these groups say.

Fearing the project’s environmental, social and cultural impacts, pro-indigenous organizations such as the Indigenous Missionary Council, linked to the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, have inscribed themselves in the Permanent Forum of the Defense of the Velho Chico (as the river has been nicknamed), created in 2001 after a seminar in Pernambuco.

Authorities, however, assure that they are conscious of the challenges that accompany the use of water resources in Brazil, home to 12 percent of the world’s fresh water reserves.

With this in mind, the ANA recently released the National Plan for Water Resources, making Brazil the first country in Latin America to establish a set of goals to organize the management of its water resources.

According to ANA’s director and president, José Machado, the key aspect of the plan is that water is considered a "fundamental factor for the promotion of sustainable development and social inclusion in Brazil."


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