These days, to get to the ferry that crosses the mythical São Francisco, you have to climb over stones and tramp through sand. The ferry connects the twin cities of Juazeiro and Petrolina and is a quick alternative to the folding bridge. "I have never seen the water level so low," says Harald Schistek, president of the Regional Institute for Adapted Agriculture (IRPAA). He must know, because he has been living in the semi-arid region in northeastern Brazil for 30 years.
The fight for the São Francisco
"I've never seen the water level this low before"
The drought that has been ravaging Brazil for a year now - ironically the country with the largest freshwater reserves in the Americas - is taking its toll everywhere: in the megalopolis of São Paolo it is forbidden to wash cars, fill swimming pools, or irrigate gardens.
In Rio de Janeiro, the government has launched an education campaign and is encouraging local residents to urinate in the shower to save water.
“It is at an all-time low"
In Brazil's Goiás granary, soybean crops are drying up and cattle and pigs are dying. And at the Sobradinho Reservoir, the largest in South America, just a few kilometres from Petrolina and Juazeiro, the authorities have removed the tally marks so that visitors will not notice the critical water level.
The statistics on water quantity - and quality - are not available to the public. This is because the São Francisco is a geo-strategic trump card for Brazil's economic development.
From its source in Minas Gerais, it crosses five states over a distance of 3000 kilometres, feeding nine hydroelectric power stations and irrigating tens of thousands of hectares of export crops such as mango, grapes, bananas, and sugar cane. About 40 million people depend on its water.
Here, river water is diverted for the irrigation of huge fruit plantations. Products produced there (e.g. grapes) can also be found in Europe in cheap supermarket chains (e.g. Aldi).
The publicity describes the wine from this region:
"A special feature is the wine-growing area in the valley of the Rio São Francisco, which lies at the 8th parallel and is therefore the closest wine-growing area in the world to the equator. Wines have been growing there since about 2003. The initial difficulty - that no grapes formed due to the dry and hot climate - was overcome. Since then at least two grape harvests per year have been possible. Grapes are harvested there practically all year round".
In 2007 the first excavators arrived to build the gigantic 700 km long channels.
In addition, 200 kilometres downstream, one of the much-publicized mega-projects of the left-wing Labour Party (PT) government (2010) is underway:
The diversion of São Francisco
It is one of the 50 largest infrastructure projects in the world, said the then-President Dilma Rousseff proudly in 2010.
The centrepiece of her ‘Growth Acceleration Programme, it was an old dream of Brazil’s:
In the 19th century, Emperor Dom Pedro II was already flirting with the idea of diverting the river's water to the semi-arid northeast.
The military governments, promoters of other mega-projects such as the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, had similar plans, which were later adopted by democratic governments. Ironically, it was Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva of the PT, a poor migrant from the Northeast, who eventually started the work despite resistance from his electoral base.
The small-hold farmers, organised by Bishop Flávio Cappio, marched against it, went on hunger strike, and went to court to stop what they saw as ‘an environmental crime for the benefit of big business’ and ‘a crazy financial adventure’.
"I don't need a canal," says farmer Pedro Duarte from the small town of Cachoerinho, hidden in the bush a dozen kilometres from the river. "I live off my goats, wild fruits and the small garden that I irrigate with water stored in a rain tank. In centuries of hardship, fighting droughts, the farmers had learned to cope with the semi-arid climate. But they were now ignored, and in 2007 the first excavators arrived to build the gigantic 700 km long canals.
90% of waste water from surrounding towns is not treated before discharge.
It was the beginning of what critics call ‘mega-fraud’: to date, the government has spent 12 billion Reais (almost two billion Euros), twice the original budget, and work has been repeatedly stalled and was still not completed in early 2020. On several occasions it had stopped due to technical problems. Many cement walls are cracked. An investigation by the Court of Auditors found that construction companies overcharged millions and there was little transparency into the granting of building permits.
The construction companies involved in the scandal were barred from signing new contracts with the state. The accounts of Petrobras and Odebrecht were subject to judicial review, which plunged the companies into liquidity problems. Recently, the company Mendes Júnior, one of the accused, stopped working in the Sao Francisco area and disposed of 2500 workers.
Brazilian economy began to slow down in 2014 and many people thought that some mega-projects would now be stopped, as happened in 2013 with the high-speed train between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, whose tender was postponed without a new date. But the construction of the river diversion continued. Not even the Odebrecht-Petrobras scandal led to the final abandonment of the project. However, together with the recession, it led to a temporary suspension of construction work.
“They still owe us wages“
"They still owe us wages, but they claim they don't even have money for fuel," laments Luciano Silva, coordinator of the Pernambuco construction union.
The regional press reported that the contractors of the Queiroz Galvao Company - also accused in the Petrobras scandal - had dismissed another 400 workers, arguing that there was a labour surplus.
According to the workers, progress was very slow due to labour shortages. Rating agencies such as Fitch downgraded the ratings of major Brazilian construction companies and feared insolvency. The government wiped these problems off the table as ‘temporary’. In 2014 it was said that 70% of the work had been completed.
The opening was planned for 2016, but was then postponed due to the political turmoil surrounding Rousseff's removal from office. Finally, in March 2017, interim president Michel Temer inaugurated the eastern section in Monteiro - a week later, the deposed Rousseff and her mentor Lula organised a ‘people's opening’ of what they considered their ‘baby’. The work was still not finished then.
“Behind this is a grand plan to connect and integrate all Brazil's fresh water resources"
Will there even be enough water to supply the two canals once they are completed? Ledo Bezerra from the Agricultural Research Institute (Embrapa) in Petrolina is sceptical: "I am very concerned because evaporation is increasing, deforestation is continuing and sedimentation has created so many sandbanks in several places that it has almost interrupted the flow of the river”.
According to Embrapa, the river will lose 30 percent of its flow in the next few years. The causes, which have turned the emblematic river that is the subject of poems and songs into an ecological disaster, are increased solar radiation due to climate change and other environmental damage.
90% of waste water from surrounding towns is not treated before discharge. Forest fires have destroyed forests near the source and deforestation has caused several of its tributaries to dry up, interrupting navigation.
So far, researchers have been calling in vain for a rethink of the river diversion. "Nevertheless, the government will see it through to the end," predicts Cicero Félix dos Santos, director of IRPAA. Not just out of pride and political stupidity: "Behind it all is a grand plan to connect and integrate all Brazil's freshwater resources," says dos Santos.
"The fact that the São Francisco River is almost dead is the ideal argument for starting its integration with the Tocantins River and the Amazon Basin in order to create large waterways to transport soya production and privatise the country's fresh water," he says.
A new tranche was added in March 2020 and finishes up in the state of Ceara’.
The project will be delayed and continued discreetly.
The Rio Pardo, which originates in the Cerrado,
is also to be diverted.
A Chinese mining company is behind it.
The Human Rights Commissioner of the State of Minas Gerais is mobilising against this.
The sociologist was invited to Europe in 2019 and also spoke about the project at the UN in Geneva.