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The São Francisco interbasin water transfer in Brazil: Tribulations of a megaproject through constraints and controversy

Philippe Roman
IHEAL-CREDA (Institute of Latin American Studies), Paris, France philipperoman13@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: This paper describes the complex social, political and economic dynamics that led the Brazilian government to launch one of the biggest hydraulic infrastructure projects in the country’s history: the transposição do São Francisco (transfer of the waters of the São Francisco River), a large-scale diversion scheme to transfer water from the São Francisco River Basin to semiarid areas of the Northeastern Region. This massive interbasin water transfer, first idealised in the nineteenth century, was turned into reality under Lula’s presidency, at a time when the Brazilian economy was booming and a left-leaning neo-developmentalist coalition had seized power. Such a controversial project has fuelled criticism from a wide social and political spectrum. Between 2005 and 2007, when the conflict was at its highest, large parts of society mobilised against the project, which makes the transposição one of the most remarkable socioenvironmental conflicts in the history of Brazil. The project was given the green light at a moment when water governance was undergoing a process of institutional reorganisation officially aiming at the implementation of more democratic procedures and of integrated governance principles. So, it can be viewed as an anachronism of the 'hydraulic mission' with its supply-side technocratic engineering solutions. But it can also be considered as a legitimate and necessary piece of water development, in an emerging country with acute regional water imbalances, that is to benefit a historically underprivileged region (the Northeast). Beyond such simplistic views, we will try to disentangle the complex nexus of political and economic interests and of conflicting discourses related to the extremely diverse set of actors that have played a role in the project, and thereby try to understand why, after more than a century of debate, the transposição has finally become a (still heatedly debated) reality.

KEYWORDS: Interbasin water transfer, megaproject, socioenvironmental conflict, neodevelopmentalism, São Francisco River, Brazil