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El río San Francisco, también conocido como "Viejo Chico", baña cinco estados del país
Credit: Brasil/MIN
Report
River of National Integration Is Dividing Brazil
By Mario Osava

The Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government in Brazil decided this year to divert water from the Sao Francisco River to the country's northeast. A broad range of groups oppose the project, saying it will benefit only large landowners and the business sector.

RIO DE JANEIRO, (Tierramérica).- - ''It will be Lula's Iraq,'' predicted Apolo Heringer Lisboa, underscoring his rejection of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's government plan to divert some of the water from the Sao Francisco River to the semi-arid lands of northeast Brazil

His reasons are laid out in a long manifesto that already carries the signatures of 205 organizations of different stripes, condemning the transfer of this resource as ''misguided, unsustainable in political and technical terms, with inevitable economic, ethical and environmental risks and incalculable consequences.''

But the decision has been made and the government intends to break ground on the project this year, after obtaining the appropriate environmental approval. It will cost some 2.38 billion dollars over the next five years, according to the Ministry of National Integration (MIN).

Lula made the initiative one of his priorities, and has painted the negative reactions to it as selfish. The president argues that it is a humanitarian issue to provide water to people who currently have to walk many kilometers to find even impure water.

The controversial idea of diverting water from the Sao Francisco, known locally as the Velho Chico, to areas that suffer frequent drought, has been debated in Brazil for a century and a half.

This time it seems to have found political footing with the national government, but also ferocious resistance from the five states that are home to this river, which has also been known as ''the river of national integration,'' for uniting the central and northeastern regions of Brazil.

The opposition movement encompasses state governments, environmentalists, scientists, community and professional associations, numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Sao Francisco Watershed Committee, a planning and management body made up of local government and civil society representatives.

The MIN project is ''useless'', non-viable and harmful to the environment because the flow of the Sao Francisco is not sufficient to supply more than its current watershed, say opponents.

It would reduce the generating capacity of the hydroelectric dams along the river, which provide 95 percent of the electricity consumed in the northeast, and would spend a great deal of energy in pumping, driving up the cost of water beyond the means of the local population, which is largely poor.

Increasing water availability by 3.9 percent in the areas targeted by the project would only benefit the large landowners and big businesses, says Lisboa, a doctor who is promoting the Manuelzo Project for the environmental recuperation of the Rio das Velhas watershed, a major tributary of the Sao Francisco.

Meanwhile, geologist Juliana Roscoe, the MIN environmental and revitalization manager, says the project will provide ''security'' in terms of water supply and that will allow a more rational management of water resources.

The local rivers exist intermittently because of the cycle of droughts, and the region relies on a system of reservoirs, which save as much water as possible, but also lose water through evaporation. And sometime the rain causes even greater losses if the dams have to be opened to prevent flooding, said Roscoe.

All of this limits the economical use of water in order to ensure public supplies, but the contribution of the Sao Francisco would put an end to such waste, freeing up existing resources for development, said the ministry geologist.

Fears of water shortages in the Sao Francisco are mitigated by the agreed formula: transferring a set volume that ensures potable water for the population, that is, 26 cubic meters per second, or one percent of the river's flow, she explained.

The project, which MIN refers to as ''watershed integration'', calls for a maximum of 127 cubic meters per second, but the volume would only be increased when the Sobradinho reservoir is full, located above the water transfer point on the river.

Furthermore, a process is to be launched for the revitalization of the watershed over the next 20 years, in order to overcome problems of deforestation and the sedimentation and contamination of the rivers, according to Mauricio Laxe, coordinator of the program for the Ministry of Environment.

The first challenge is ''to establish inter-institutional coordination'' among various ministries and state and municipal governments, and to expand local forums to mobilize society and effectively combat those problems, he said.

There is also a lack of environmental education. The metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte, capital of the southern state of Minas Gerais, holds 30 percent of the watershed's 12.5 million inhabitants and is responsible for more than 20 percent of the river's pollution, but ''only one percent of its population is even aware that they live in the Sao Francisco Watershed,'' added the ministry official.

Recuperating the tributaries, reforesting the riverbanks and creating protected areas are other key tasks. In environmental clean-up alone -- entrusted to the ministries of Cities and Health -- 220 million dollars has been earmarked for 2005, said Laxe, underscoring the multiplicity of actions and investments in this problem.

But critics like Ruben Siqueira , one of the coordinators of the Pastoral Land Commission, of the Catholic Church, accuse the government of prioritizing this project -- setting aside 500 million dollars in the next national budget -- to the detriment of revitalization efforts, which will receive only one-tenth of that sum in the Ministry of Environment.

The water diversion project ''will concentrate the water and the land'' in the hands of a few, as has always occurred in the Brazilian northeast, because it will benefit only five percent of the semi-arid region, around 10 kilometers on each side of the canals, said Siqueira.

But MIN geologist Roscoe says these alternative approaches are complementary, but not ''structural'' like watershed integration, which, she says, will generate employment by facilitating development and will benefit the population living beyond the canals.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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