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Transposition of São Francisco River

Has been developed by the Ministry of National Integration between 2003 and 2006. 

Transposition of São Francisco River

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 17/10/2013

By: Virginia Barbosa - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

The controversial and ambitious Project for the Integration of São Francisco River and the Watershed of the Northern Northeast, known as the Transposition of São Francisco River Project, has been developed by the Ministry of National Integration between 2003 and 2006. According to the Ministry, it is a governmental undertaking with the purpose of assuring the availability of water, in 2025, to nearly 12 million inhabitants of cities in the semiarid region of the States of Pernambuco, Ceará, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.

The idea of transposing, however, is not new. According to researchers, there have been some moments in history when the transpositions was considered and suggested, but nothing or almost nothing has been done. In 1847, an Engineer from Ceará, Marcos de Macedo, presented the idea to the Emperor Dom Pedro II as a solution the drought that hit the Northeast; however, no action was taken.

The Count of Capanema (1856) and the engineer Tristão Franklin Alencar (1886) indicated the opening of a canal connecting São Francisco river to Jaguaribe river, but the projects have been filed. The same happened during the republican period (1889 and 1919), under the government of Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945, 1951-1954), João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo (1981), Itamar Franco (1992-1995) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002). There were several reasons, but problems such as lack of funds, technical difficulties, political will, besides resistance from the people got in the way.

Between 2003 and 2006, the proposal of transposing the waters of São Francisco river was again part of the governmental agenda and the Ministry of National Integration was nominated to execute the work. Again, the controversy and resistance to the Project came from several areas of the society: the Catholic Church, politicians, technicians, native communities and riparian populations. Even with such resistance, in 2007, the Engineering and Construction Unit of the Brazilian Army started the work.

In a simple definition, it is possible to say that

the project consists of a system of open air concrete canals that will take the waters of São Francisco river  – whose course will not be deviated – to big dams already existing in the semiarid area. From there the waters will be distributed along the intermittent rivers of the Polygon, as necessary, creating the so called “hydro synergy” in the region. [...] The canals will be about 620 long and will cut the Drought Polygon into two directions, north and east. [...] The largest canal – called North Axis, with 402 kilometers of extension – will begin in the municipality of Cabrobró, State of Pernambuco, and will run towards the basins of Brígida river (PE), Jaguaribe river (CE), Apodi river (RN) and Piranhas-Açu river (PB-RN). The East Axis, 220 kilometers long, will begin in the reservoir of Itaparica and will reach the basins of Moxotó river (PE) and Paraíba river (PB). [...] With two axis operating, by means of water mains, the hydrous needs of some important municipalities in the rural area of Pernambuco will also be fulfilled, such as Caruaru, and cities as Campina Grande, the second largest in the State of Paraíba, which has lived with water shortage for years. (MAWAKDIYE, 2005, p. 6-7).

With an initial budget of R$ 4,5 billion, the Project has attracted the attention of people who are in favor and also against it

The controversy is based on the benefits, costs, the environmental, economic and social impacts and the technical procedures that have been proposed, and already undertaken, for the execution and conclusion of the works for the transposition of São Francisco river.

Those who are in favor of the project are mainly based on the purposes of the project that aim at supplying water to several uses: 70% for irrigation, 26% for industrial use and 4% for the population of the region.

Regarding the project value, they assert that, when compared to government expenses with emergency care to the drought victims in the semiarid region, the transposition does not present a high cost and the benefits will reach an area where the population has suffered for centuries due to the lack of water.  

Regarding the impacts, there is a list of potential negative and positive aspects. However, the real impact may only be evaluated after the conclusion of the work. The positive aspects, besides irrigation and water supply to some cities, there is the water supply to animals, and improvements in the rural provisions, investments in family agriculture, building of public fountain, generation of employment (during the construction work) – and a following growth of income and commerce; reduction of the rural migration and deaths caused by the consumption of contaminated water or by the lack of water.

Those who are against it, are afraid of the negative impacts over the environment. The transposition will cause changes in the ecosystem around the receptor rivers, changing the species’ lives, which will probably result in a reduction of the aquatic biodiversity. That is, the current attenuation of São Francisco river due to excessive use by humans (irrigation and livestock programs in the State of Bahia, fishing and tourism in Sergipe, and industrial use along its whole course) may have grown, and, thus, cause the destruction of its ecosystem. There is also the opinion of technicians who assert that

[…] there is a lot of water accumulated in reservoirs of the Northeast region, in enough volume to supple the population needs, therefore there is no excuse for the execution of a project that would remove volumes from São Francisco river, about 500km from the consumption location. Moreover, there are studies that prove the volume of the River is decreasing, and thus it is necessary to double the attention towards the use of its waters. This situation is made even worse due to the bad use and the adversities found in the natural environment of the region, mainly those related to climate (semiarid) and the geology (crystal rocks) of the basin (SUASSUNA, 2010, p. 368).

Among other things, it is possible to mention as worries and reasons for being against the project: the loss of electric energy generation in the water plants of São Francisco river, after the reservoir of Sobradinho, where there is a deviation of part of the river flow; the absence of a more audacious program for the river’s revitalization (for those against the project, its revitalization program is not good enough); desertification (in Cabrobó); alteration of the drainage system; loss and fragmentation of native vegetation areas and the habitat of land animals; substitution of the drought industry for the irrigation industry (dispute among southern and northern agribusiness companies); considering that the benefits for the population and the area of the project will not be as good as the project proposal.

Also, protests are fighting against the government’s lack of attention regarding possible solutions for the drought in the semiarid which would be much faster and less expensive: more rational management of the water stored in the dams, without waste; a more complex system for collection of rainwater and search for underground reservoirs; creation of communitarian dams; and the installation of domestic tanks.
The climate adversity has always been a burden for inhabitants of the northeastern semiarid region and it requires actions and programs resulting in the socioeconomic development of the region. While they are not seen as priority by the authorities and those who are interested in the matter, the controversy will continue and the consequences of the drought will remain as a part of life of those who live in that area.

Recife, 27 September 2011. 

sources consulted

CASTRO, César Nunes de. Transposição do Rio São Francisco. Boletim Regional, Urbano e Ambiental, n. 2, jul. 2009.  Available at: <>. Accessed: 21 set. 2011.

MAWAKDIYE, Alberto. Canais da discórdia: transposição do São Francisco, uma idéia tão antiga quanto polêmica. Problemas Brasileiros, São Paulo, n. 368, p. 4-15, mar./abr. 2005.

SAKAMOTO, Leonardo. Transpor é a solução? Sem a água do Velho Chico, a esperança é a última que seca. Problemas Brasileiros, São Paulo, n. 347, p. 4-11, set./out. 2001.

SUASSUNA, João. Transposição do Rio São Francisco na perspectiva do Brasil real. São Paulo: Porto de Ideias, 2010

TRANSPOSIÇÃO do Rio São Francisco (Mapa neste texto).Available at: <>. Accessed: 26 set. 2011.

how to quote this text

Source: BARBOSA, Virgínia. Transposição do Rio São Francisco. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife.Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Example.: 6 August 2009.