Army engineers are set to start a controversial 4.5 billion reais ($1.8 billion) project next month to divert one of Brazil's biggest rivers and bring water to 12 million people in the parched northeast.
RIO DE JANEIRO Army engineers are set to start a controversial 4.5 billion reais ($1.8 billion) project next month to divert one of Brazil's biggest rivers and bring water to 12 million people in the parched northeast.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, believes siphoning water from the 1,700 mile Sao Francisco river will stem the flow of millions of peasants from Brazil's poorest region to southern cities in search of a better life.
Supporters say it will cost less than drought aid in 1998, when the northeast was hit by a particularly severe drought.
Critics argue the plan is misguided, extravagant and aimed at promoting Lula's re-election in 2006. The project is being funded from the national budget after the World Bank and other foreign donors backed out.
"Using the army ensures that works can start in July after an environmental permit has been granted," Pedro Brito, project coordinator at the Ministry of National Integration, told Reuters in a phone interview.
"The project will guarantee people water in the drought-stricken northeast," Brito said.
The government has pledged to accept by July 12 the 31 conditions imposed by the national environmental agency Ibama to protect trees, prevent pollution and look after wildlife.
The army will build two canals with a combined length of 5 miles to carry water from the Sao Francisco river to two dams. The work will take 14 months and cost an estimated 85 million reais ($34.5 million).
Water will be pumped into planned northern and eastern canals totaling 435 miles (700 km) that will feed a vast semi-arid hinterland of scrub and stones.
Most of project, which will mainly benefit the states of Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco and Paraiba, will be executed by private contractors who are due to be selected by public tender in mid-August.
The Sao Francisco river runs from Minas Gerais in the southeast into the Atlantic at Alagoas state, linking the rich southeast with the poor northeast which has 30 percent of Brazil's population but only 3 percent of its drinking water supply.
Critics say huge canals are costly and unnecessary.
"It's nonviable economically, socially and ecologically," said Roberto Malvezzi, national coordinator of the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission. "It has a strong political and electoral flavor."
In 2003, the World Bank completed a report for the government questioning the economic viability of the project. It proposed smaller projects, such as cisterns and aqueducts, to store and distribute water to the region's rural poor.
A World Bank official in Brasilia declined to comment.
But in a phone interview from Jaizeiro on the southern bank of the Sao Francisco river, Malvezzi said the government's grandiose project was unprofitable and would benefit only 5 percent of the northeast region.
"The problem is water storage and management," Malvezzi said, adding that 95 percent of rainwater is lost through evaporation or escapes into the ocean.
The head of the Bahia Environmental Group (GAMBA), Renato Cunha, said the polluted Sao Francisco valley must first be brought back to life.
This involves controlling deforestation, especially along river banks, stopping dumping of sewage into the river and planning community settlements, he said.
"It's a mega project that serves the interests of big landowners rather than the needs of the semi-arid region," said Cunha.
About 70 percent of the water will be for economic use -- irrigated grapes and other fruits, flowers and shrimp farming for export. Only 4 percent is for poor people in the scrub.