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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