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BRAZIL: Water Mega-Project for the Thirsty Agreste

Fabíola Ortiz

PORTO DE GALINHAS, Brazil, Sep 29 2011 (IPS) - The development of one part of Brazil’s semiarid Northeast, the Agreste region in the state of Pernambuco, could begin with the construction of canals that will bring in water diverted from the São Francisco River.

The controversial project to rechannel the river to bring water to the Northeast is an idea that was first floated in the 19th century, but was only recently approved. However, one of its associated projects, the Adutora do Agreste (Agreste Canal), is already moving ahead, and the works are scheduled to be completed in 2015.

“Pernambuco is a state of extremes: we go from drought to rivers flooding their banks. We have a forested area where it rains a lot, sometimes 2,000 mm a year, and then we have the (semiarid) Agreste and the (arid) Sertão,” engineer José Almir Cirilo, state secretary of water resources, told IPS.

The Agreste, which covers a vast expanse of land in several of the states in the Northeast – Brazil’s poorest region – is a transitional ecosystem between the Atlantic forest and the Sertão, which receives an average of 400 to 600 mm of rain a year.

The Agreste has serious water supply problems, said Cirilo. Nearly 80 percent of Pernambuco is arid.

Adutora do Agreste, a project carried out by the Companhia Pernambucana de Saneamento (Compesa), was promoted at the 14th World Water Congress running Sept. 25-29 in Porto de Galinhas, a beautiful resort town on Pernambuco’s Atlantic coast.

The meeting was organised by the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), a not-for-profit network that seeks to improve understanding of water issues through education, research and information exchange among countries and across disciplines, and the Pernambuco state government.

The Agreste does not have usable groundwater resources, as the underground water in the region is saline.

Three million people live in the Pernambuco segment of the Agreste alone. The problem of supplying water to the area’s 71 towns and cities does not just involve scarcity, but also the heavy concentration of salt in the freshwater reserves.

“The Agreste is one of the most populated semiarid regions in the world, and many people live in places with adverse climate and soil conditions,” said Cirilo.

But the region stands out for its potential in development of trade services and as one of Brazil’s leading textile industry centres.

However, the development that the region has awaited for decades depends on ensuring water supplies for the local population.

Although the project to divert a portion of the water of the São Francisco River has drawn criticism, its advocates see it as the solution for Pernambuco’s Agreste region.

The complete project, with an estimated cost of over four billion dollars, consists of two main canals that will pipe water into small rivers and weirs that tend to dry up in the states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba and Pernambuco.

Critics of the project to divert part of the São Francisco river point to the inevitable impact on the environment caused by the construction of over 700 km of canals, aqueducts, tunnels and pipes, 30 dams, and nine water pumping stations.

“When the rechanneling of the São Francisco began to be seriously discussed in 1996, we were against it because the idea of the project was to divert water to neighbouring states, and it wasn’t going to benefit Pernambuco, which has the worst water shortages in Brazil,” said Cirilo.

“Our proposal was to develop the transportation of water by means of ‘adutores’ or canals,” he added.

The rechanneling “is a setback in terms of the concept of coexisting with semiarid conditions,” the strategy recognised today as the route towards an effective solution to the social problems of the Northeast, said Alba Cavalcanti, assistant coordinator of a programme that collects rainwater for irrigation of vegetable gardens.

The programme is one of the initiatives of the Articulação no Semi-Árido Brasileiro (ASA), a network of over 700 NGOs, labour unions and community and religious institutions that works to bring water and other solutions mainly to rural parts of Brazil’s semiarid Northeast.

When fewer than 1,500 cubic metres of water are available per person per year, it is defined as a water stress situation. Pernambuco has reserves of 1,300 cubic metres per person, while the Agreste region has reserves of no more than 800 cubic metres per capita.

At a cost of 1.24 billion dollars, the Adutora do Agreste is the most ambitious water project in Pernambuco: it is seen as one of the largest scale integrated water systems in the world, with a capacity to make water universally available to the entire population in 68 towns and cities that are home to a combined total of 1.2 million people, and will benefit another 80 rural villages and communities.

The system will include a water treatment plant with a capacity of 4,000 litres per second, and will increase the availability of water supplies by more than 100 percent.

The canal is projected to bring water to some two million people in the next 30 years. It will be fed by the Ipojuca river reservoir that will be built to receive and store the water rechanneled from the São Francisco River, one of the country’s largest, which rises in central Brazil and runs south to north through five states before it empties into the Atlantic.

“The Agreste region is growing, and the water problems could inhibit and limit that growth,” engineer Cláudia Ribeiro, water project manager at Compesa, told IPS.

The preliminary technical report for the Adutora do Agreste was produced in 2007; work on the canal is due to start in early 2012; and the project is to be concluded in 2015, providing all of the municipalities with permanent access to water.

But “the idea is to start serving part of the municipalities in 2013, because the project will be carried out in stages,” said Cirilo.

Projections by the Federal University of Pernambuco indicate that every real (54 cents of a dollar) invested in water and sanitation is equivalent to a savings of four reals (2.16 dollars) in the public health system.

The landscape in the Agreste region in Pernambuco is going to change, said Cirilo, referring to the water infrastructure and the Transnordestino railroad that is under construction.

“Development prospects, the railway, water irrigation initiatives – all of this will bring about major changes. Things are already starting to change,” he said.

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