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Drought in Northeast Brazil

The problem is not new, nor exclusive to the Brazilian Northeast.

Drought in Northeast Brazil

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 17/03/2022

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation - Specialist in Scientific Documentation

Drought is a natural phenomenon, characterized by the delay in rainfall or its irregular distribution, which ends up harming the growth or development of agricultural plantations.

The problem is not new, nor exclusive to the Brazilian Northeast. It occurs frequently, presents a relative periodicity and can be predicted rather in advance. The drought affects Brazil, as well as Africa, Asia, Australia and North America.

In the Northeast, according to historical records, the phenomenon appears at intervals close to ten years, and can last for periods of three, four and, exceptionally, up to five years. Droughts have been known in Brazil since the 16th century.

Drought manifests itself with different intensities. It depends on the rainfall index. When there is a marked deficiency in the amount of rainfall in the year, below the minimum needed by the plantations, the drought is absolute.

In other cases, when the rains are just enough to cover the caatinga with leaves and accumulate a little water in the ponds and dams, but do not allow the normal development of agricultural plantations, a green drought occurs.

These climatic variations affect the growth of plantations and end up causing a serious social problem, since a significant number of people who inhabit the region truly live in extreme poverty.

Drought is the result of the interaction of several factors, some external to the region (such as the process of wind circulation and marine currents, which are related to atmospheric movement, preventing the formation of rain in certain places), and others internal to it (such as weak vegetation, topography, and high soil reflectivity).

Many causes have been pointed out, such as deforestation, temperature in the region, amount of rainfall, topographic relief, and sunspots. Also noteworthy is the El Niño phenomenon, which consists of an increase in the temperature of the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru and Ecuador.

Human action has also contributed to aggravating the issue, as the constant destruction of natural vegetation through fires causes the expansion of the semi-arid climate to areas where it did not previously exist.

Drought is an ecological phenomenon that manifests itself in the reduction of agricultural production, causes a social crisis and becomes a political problem.

The most evident consequences of the great droughts are hunger, malnutrition, misery and migration to urban centers (rural exodus).

The problems that follow droughts result from failures in the process of land occupation and use and from the maintenance of a deeply concentrating and unfair social structure.

The first fact is manifested in the introduction of cultures that are difficult to adapt to the existing climatic conditions and the use of techniques for the use of soils that are not compatible with the ecological conditions of the region. The second entails control of land ownership and the political process by local oligarchies.

These aspects worsen the results of droughts and cause the destruction of nature, the pollution of rivers and the exploitation by large landowners and high traders of resources destined to combat poverty in the region, in what is called the “drought industry”. 

The issue of drought is not just about the lack of water. Strictly speaking, there is no lack of water in the Northeast. There is a lack of solutions to solve its bad distribution and the difficulties of its use. It is “necessary to demystify the drought as a destabilizing element of the economy and social life of the Northeast and as a source of high expenses for the Union... to demystify the idea that drought, being a natural phenomenon, is responsible for the hunger and misery that prevail in the region, as if these elements were present only there”. (Andrade, Manoel Correia. A Seca: Realidade e Mito, p. 7).

With a much smaller population than the Northeast, the Amazon, which has abundant water, also has inhumane living conditions, as do several other Brazilian regions. There, the problem is different, as the environment is inhospitable, due to floods, poor soils, and the proliferation of tropical diseases.

Periodic climatic crises, such as floods, frosts and droughts, happen in any part of the world, harming agriculture. In some cases they become social calamities. However, they only become a social scourge when precarious social, political and economic conditions allow it. Semi-arid and arid regions of the world are used for agriculture, through the development of dry crops or irrigable crops, as in the United States, Israel, Mexico, Peru, Chile or Senegal.

Delimited by the Federal Government in 1951 (Law No. 1,348), the Polígono das Secas, with a dimension of 950,000 square kilometers, is equivalent to more than half of the territory of the Northeast region (52.7%), which goes from Piauí to part of northern Minas Gerais. The climate is semi-arid and the vegetation is caatinga. The soil is shallow, for the most part, and surface water evaporation is high. This is the area most subject to the effects of periodic droughts.

The natural phenomenon of droughts gave rise to a political phenomenon called the drought industry.

The large landowners of the Northeast, taking advantage of their political allies, interfere in the decisions taken at federal, state and municipal scales. They benefit from the investments made and the bank credits granted. Often they apply the financing obtained in sectors other than agriculture, and take advantage of the dramatic publicity of droughts not to pay the debts incurred. The dominant groups have been strengthened, while the search for solutions to social problems and the offer of work to poor populations is postponed.

Landless workers (wage earners, partners, tenants, squatters) are the most vulnerable to drought, because they are the first to be laid off or to have their agreements undone.

The tragedy of the drought covers hidden interests of those who have political influence or are economically powerful, who seek to perpetuate the problem and prevent effective actions from being taken.

The drought issue brought about several government actions. The first initiatives to deal with the drought issue were aimed at providing water to the semi-arid region. In this perspective, the Inspectorate of Works Against Droughts was created (Decree No. 7.619, of October 21, 1909), currently Dnocs, with the purpose of centralizing and unifying the direction of the services, aiming at the execution of a plan to combat effects of climatic irregularities. The construction of roads, dams, weirs, wells were then started, as a way of providing support for agriculture to withstand periods of drought.

The idea of solving the water problem in the semi-arid region was, basically, the guideline drawn up by the Federal Government for the Northeast and prevailed, at least, until mid-1945. At the time when the Brazilian Constitution of 1946 established the reserve in the budget of the Government of 3% of the fiscal collection for expenses in the Northeastern region, a new position was born, distinct from the hydraulic solution in the anti-drought policy, shifting the emphasis on works to the more rational use of resources.

In order to use the power generation potential of the São Francisco River, the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (Chesf) was founded (1945). In 1948, the São Francisco Valley Commission (CVSF) was created, today called the São Francisco Valley Development Company (Codevasf) and, in 1952, the Banco do Nordeste do Brasil (BNB). The idea was to create a medium and long-term credit institution specifically for the Northeast.

In December 1959, the Superintendence for the Development of the Northeast – Sudene (currently extinct and with projects to be recreated in new ways) was created, an organization constituted to study and propose guidelines for the development of the Northeast economy, with the objective of reducing the existing disparity in relation to the Center-South of the country. An attempt was made to establish a new intervention model, aimed both at the problem of droughts and at the Northeast as a whole.

After the 1970 drought, the Land Redistribution and Promotion Program for Agroindustry in the North and Northeast (Proterra) emerged in 1971, with the objective of promoting peaceful agrarian reform in the Northeast, through the purchase of land from farmers, spontaneously and at market price. In 1974, the Program for the Development of Integrated Lands in the Northeast (Polonordeste) was instituted to promote the modernization of agriculture in selected areas of the region. The Sertanejo Project, launched in 1976, would act in the semi-arid areas in order to make their economy more resistant to the effects of drought, through the association between irrigated agriculture and dry agriculture.

In order to incorporate the previous projects, considered failed, the Support Program for Small Rural Producers (Northeast Project) was implemented in 1985, with the aim of eradicating absolute poverty, innovating with the allocation of resources to small producers.

As emergency actions, there has been an appeal for the distribution of food, through basic food baskets and work fronts, created to provide services to the unemployed during the drought period, aimed at building roads, dams, bridges.

The problems of droughts will only be overcome by profound socio-economic transformations at the national level. Several propositions have been formulated:

– Transform the current agrarian structure, concentrating land and income, through an Agrarian Reform that does social justice to rural workers.

– Establish an Irrigation Policy that adopts technologies that are easier for rural workers to access and that are more adapted to the reality of the Northeast.

– Institute irrigated agriculture in areas where water is available and develop dry agriculture, with xerophytic plants (which resist water shortages) with short vegetative cycles. Foods such as sorghum and millet, as substitutes for corn, would be important for the Northeast, as is the case in India, China and the western United States.

– Establish an Industrialization Policy, with the implementation of industries that benefit from local raw materials, aiming at reducing transport costs, as well as offering job opportunities to the region’s workforce.

– Provide access to the use of water, making use of water accumulated in large dams, weirs and mud pits, drilling of wells, construction of underground dams, rural cisterns, by the currently excluded population.

– Correct land occupation practices, with regard to livestock, eliminating excess cattle in pastures, which can cause serious damage to pastures and soils; burning pastures, which destroys existing organic matter; and deforestation, due to the sale of wood and firewood.

– Stimulate the rational use of native vegetation (caatinga) for charcoal and trade of hardwood.

– To implement the Rio São Francisco Waters Transposition Project for other hydrographic basins in the regional semi-arid region.


It is not possible to eliminate a natural phenomenon. Droughts will continue to exist. But it is possible to live with the problem. The Northeast is viable. Its biggest problems come from the action or omission of men and the conception of the society that was implanted, rather than from the droughts themselves of which it is a victim.

The semi-arid is a favorable region for irrigated agriculture and livestock. It just needs a rational treatment of these activities, especially in the ecological aspect. In areas that are more arid than those of the northeastern hinterland, such as the Negev desert in Israel, the local population is able to enjoy a good standard of living.

Solutions imply the adoption of an official policy for the region, which respects the reality in which the Northeast people live, giving them conditions of access to land and work. The issue of managing the guidelines adopted cannot be forgotten, given the diversity of bodies dealing with the matter.

Structuring and concrete measures are necessary so that the dramas of droughts do not continue to be experienced.



Recife, July 11, 2003.

sources consulted

ANDRADE, Manoel Correia de. A seca: realidade e mito. Recife: ASA Pemambuco, 1985. 81 p.


CAVALCANTI, Clóvis. A seca do Nordeste brasileiro: uma visão de estudos e pesquisas elaborados em um século de produção de conhecimento. Revista Econômica do Nordeste, Fortaleza, v.19, n.,1, p. 97-126,jan./mar. 1988.


CERQUEIRA, Paulo Cezar Lisboa. A seca no contexto social do Nordeste. Caderno do CEAS, Salvador, n. 115, p. 13-33, maio/jun. 1988.


COELHO, Jorge. As secas do Nordeste e a indústria das secas. Petrópolis (RJ): Vozes, 1985. 88 p.


DIAS, João de Deus de Oliveira. O problema social das sêcas em Pemambuco. Recife: [s.n.], 1949.


FANTASMA da fome. Veja, São Paulo, a. 31, n.18, p. 26-33, 6 maio 1998.


PORTELA, Fernando; ANDRADE, Joaquim Correia de. Secas no Nordeste. São Paulo: Ática, 1987.


ROSADO, Vingt-Un (org.) Memorial da seca. [Mossoró, RN]: Fundação Guimarães Duque, 1981. 241 p. (Coleção mossoroense, v.53).


A "SECA" no Brasil: editorial. Cadernos do CEAS, Salvador, n.88, p.3-8, nov./dez. 1983.


OS SINDICATOS e o problema da seca. Cadernos do CEAS, Salvador, n.88, p. 40-47, nov./dez. 1983.


how to quote this text

GASPAR, Lúcia. Seca no Nordeste brasileiro. In: PESQUISA Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2003. Available at: Accessed on: month day year. (Ex.: Aug. 6 2009.)