Brazil’s huge river diversion project divides opinion
By Henry Mance
Outside his house by the São Francisco river, Emanoel de Souza toys with the skin of a crocodile he hunted a month earlier. “There are plenty out there. You leave a cow’s heart on a hook by the river, and by morning a crocodile will have bitten,” he smiles. The meat makes for a good meal and the skin provides an amusing decoration.
But Mr. de Souza gets much more than crocodiles from the São Francisco. The river also provides water for him to farm fish and rice. The profits of the last harvest alone paid for a new motorbike. This makes him one of the lucky ones. Just a few kilometres away, out of reach of the São Francisco’s water, Raquel Torres has lost a crop of beans and maize due to lack of rain. “This is the second consecutive year. There is no irrigation here,” she says. The water she uses for drinking, cooking and washing arrives every few weeks by lorry. Like many residents of Brazil’s dry north-east, she knows that water can be the scarcest commodity.
The national government’s solution is to divert part of the São Francisco – the only major river that starts and finishes in Brazil – through the sertão, the semi-arid backlands. Two large canals, one of 400km and another of 220 km, will deliver water to cities and to agriculture. The basic idea is not new – it has been mooted for centuries and seriously mulled over for decades – but its implementation is. Works began in 2009 and are scheduled for completion in 2025. Then, the government claims, the project will benefit more than 12 million “people who are thirsty”.
And the north-east feels thirsty. Looking over the potentially fertile soils of the sertão under the intense sun, locals are prone to echo a single sentiment: all that is lacking is water. They point to the example of Petrolina, a nearby city that, thanks to irrigation, has become one of Brazil’s leading producers of fruit for export. Indeed, it is the only place in the world where grapes can be harvested twice a year.
Not everyone is so optimistic. Environmentalists say the São Francisco is already overused. The current project, they say, threatens the river’s capacity to generate the North East’s hydroelectricity, as well as the livelihoods of those who, like Emanoel de Souza, currently depend on it for agriculture. “The diversion won’t resolve the water supply problem of the most-at-need people in the sertão, because they are geographically so spread out,” argues João Suassuna, a long-time critic. “And the São Francisco River, because it has multiple uses, won’t be able to supply the volumes of water necessary to ensure the viability of the venture.” Instead, he points to a 2005 study, the Northeast Atlas, which concluded that reservoirs and rainfall could supply three times as many people as the diversion, for about half the cost.
Both supporters and opponents of the diversion project agree that, when it comes to the north-east and water, technical arguments only explain so much. The diversion project is as much political as it is agronomical. For President Lula da Silva, it is his chance to show his commitment to his native north-east.
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