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close this bookManagement of Latin American River Basins: Amazon, Plata, and São Francisco (UNU, 1999, 338 pages)
close this folderPart III: The São Francisco river basin
View the document8. The Rio São Francisco: Lifeline of the north-east
View the document9. Policies for water-resources planning and management of the São Francisco river basin
View the document10. Addressing global environment issues through a comprehensive approach to water-resources management: Perspectives from the São Francisco and Plata basins

8. The Rio São Francisco: Lifeline of the north-east

Larry D. Simpson


The Rio São Francisco rises in the cerrado of the state of Minas Gerais and Goias in the central region of Brazil fed by the runoff from orographic rainfall of the central plateau and chapadas that divide this drainage from the Tocantins and Amazon drainages to the North-west (map 1: National location map, valley of the São Francisco river1). The river arises in the state of Minas Gerais in the Serra da Canastra at an elevation of approximately 1600 m. From there it winds 2,700 km north and east through the semi-arid lands of the north-east region of Brazil crossing much of the area defined as the Drought Polygon of the country (map 2: Drought Polygon of the north-east of Brazil2) and provides a lifeline to the region. The flows of this drainage provide the hydropower to fuel the industry of the region, the water to supply the growing fruit and vegetable production industry, the transportation for goods and services, a fishery that provides fish renowned for their delicate flavour and fine texture, and the foundation for a culture unique in the world. The Afro-Brazilian spirits said to inhabit the river spawned the famous Kahunka figurines on the prows of the boats which plied the river during the last century in an effort to appease and ward off the more malevolent of these spirits. The music of the people of this river system became a root for some of the delightful music of the region. This river system holds the key for the future of the region, but also represents one of the major potential sources of conflict as the many developing demands for scarce water supplies within the north-east of Brazil compete for the lifeblood of the river. These demands are not just limited to the riparian states of the river basin. The non-riparian semi-arid states of the north-east have long coveted the waters of this river system and proposals for major transbasin diversions to the north and east of the drainage have been put forth for over 75 years. The emotional, environmental, political, and economic struggles that such diversions proposals will spawn have just begun to emerge. This river system will be the subject of intense study, development, and controversy during the coming century and the solution of these controversies will require the best technical and political minds the country has to offer. The complexities of the system will require the use of the latest in computer and hydro-meteorological information technology to provide the decision makers and diplomats with the information and tools necessary to forge compromises and to develop and prioritize the competing and, frequently, conflicting uses of the resources of the basin. The challenge of meeting the multi-purpose demands for the water of the river system in a sustainable and environmentally acceptable manner will tax future thinkers and decision makers to the limit. The equally important challenge of providing for these demands in a manner that does not threaten or destroy the unique ecology of the river and pollute its scarce and valuable water supply will require compromise, sound planning, political and scientific cooperation, and a tremendous amount of effort, time, and financial resources.

Map 1: National location map, valley of the São Francisco river (CODEVASF)

Map 2: Drought Polygon of the north-east of Brazil

Geography and climate

The basin of the Rio São Francisco encompasses a drainage of approximately 640,000 km2,3 with the drainage beginning in the high elevations of the Serra da Canastra in the southern part of the state of Minas Gerais and ending at its mouth to the Atlantic ocean as it forms the border between the States of Alagoas and Sergipe. The river is perennial in nature as are its primary tributaries in Minas Gerais and the western part of the State of Bahia. The river traverses climatological variations ranging from humid to arid. The main part of the flow of the river system is contributed from the humid and semi-humid drainages near its headwaters with only flood flows from the intermittent rivers of the arid and semi-arid regions adding to the flow during the rainy seasons. These contributions frequently provide more problems than benefits in the form of floods, erosion, and sedimentation in the river system. The river system has been subjected to a great deal of infrastructure modification, primarily for the production of hydroelectric energy, throughout its length. The basin has tremendous agricultural potential if its waters can be fully utilized for irrigation of the good soils along its margins. It also has the potential to provide a key transportation link through this region of Brazil and to provide additional energy to the region. These uses are not mutually exclusive but a great deal of coordination and prioritization will be required if the optimum mix of uses and management options are to be obtained from the asset values of the river system. The solution to this problem will involve the development of technological information and decision support tools and will also require resolution of problems of a more political and economic nature.

The Rio São Francisco basin is normally divided into four distinct sub-basins4: the alta or upper; the medio or middle; the sub-medio or lower middle; and the baixo or lower basin (map 3: Subdivision of basins, valley of the São Francisco river5). Each has distinct characteristics from a topographic and climatological standpoint.

Alta sub-basin

The alta or upper sub-basin is located in the most southerly part of the basin, primarily within the state of Minas Gerais and is a region of rolling hills, table lands, and high flat chapadas. The climate is temperate to sub-tropical and can be classified as a humid zone. The precipitation in this part of the sub-basin averages approximately 1,250 mm per year with highs in the western part of the sub-basin of 1,400 mm per year and lows near the northern edge of 1,000 mm per year. The temperature within this sub-basin averages between an average low of 18°C during the winter months to an average high of 23°C during the summer months. The capital of the State of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte is located in this area with its strong industrial and commercial centre and the attendant production of wastes which eventually find a way into the waters of the river system. Petroleum refining is an important economic factor in both Belo Horizonte and in the city of Betim located in the southerly extreme of the sub-basin. Mining for construction materials also predominates within this region. The average altitude is between 1,000 to 1,300 m above sea level with high flat chapadas along the western edge and rolling hills to the centre and south-eastern part. The vegetation is typically cerrado or savanna with good soil and rich agricultural production potential. Where irrigation has been developed, a strong fruit culture industry is developing. This is particularly prevalent in the northern edge of the sub-basin in the vicinity of Janauba and Gorituba where strong private irrigation has been coupled with well-developed federal efforts to develop a high production fruit growing area that exports internationally and to the more highly populated areas of Brazil. Production from the high chapada areas to the west is primarily soya and cattle with some gradual shift to higher value crops within irrigated areas. This region has also produced a large amount of cultivated forests of eucalyptus for use in the paper industry and in the production of charcoal for the steel industry. The rivers within this sub-basin are predominately perennial in nature and are the primary sources of flow for the rest of the river basin. Infrastructure development within this reach of the river includes irrigation diversion and the large Tres Marias dam and reservoir. This facility is used primarily for hydroelectric energy production and for the regularization of the river flow to control flooding in the river system below. This reach of the river contains the basin's largest urban population located in the metropolitan Belo Horizonte area. While other cities are also located within this upper drainage, the impact of Belo Horizonte vastly overshadows all other factors in terms of existing and potential pollution, economic influence and population. Other moderate-sized cities located within this sub-basin include Patos da Minas, Januaria, Betim, and others. With a population of almost 7 million based upon a 1994 census6 this region represents over half of the total population of the São Francisco river basin.

Map 3: Subdivision of basins, valley of the São Francisco river

Medio sub-basin

The medio sub-basin of the river is located within the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia and is characterized by two distinct zones. On the left or western margin of the basin, the western zone is fed by orographic rainfall in the high areas to the west. The tributaries are primarily perennial with the major river systems being the Corrente river and the Grande river. The vegetation is primarily cerrado in the upper and left margins of the sub-basin and caatinga or semi-arid type vegetation in the remainder of the sub-basin. The soils in this area are excellent for agricultural production and both private and public irrigation has developed historically. The left margin in the southern part of this sub-basin is strongly influenced by the perennial tributary river systems with significant irrigation development on these tributaries in both the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia. However, the right or eastern margin of the sub-basin within the State of Bahia is characterized by intermittent or seasonal tributaries and has considerably less development. It is predominately caatinga vegetation characteristic of the sertão or semi-arid area. Primary use of the land in this area is for cattle and goat production with limited subsistence agriculture and irrigated agriculture where water is available from surface or underground sources. The Rio São Francisco through this sub-basin is not broken by any dams or reservoirs until its lower or northern extreme. At the lower reach of the sub-basin, the headwaters of the Sobradinho reservoir are encountered. The land and soils of this sub-basin represent a significant potential for the development of irrigated agriculture in the north-east region of Brazil. The large amount of solar radiation, moderate to hot temperatures, and good soils provide a high potential for the development of high value fruit, vegetable, and coffee crops as well as major soya and grain production. The development of this potential could provide a strong economic boost to the region and to Brazil as well as providing a major source of food for less productive areas of the world. The precipitation within this sub-basin averages around 900 mm per year and the average temperature ranges from 25°C in the summer to 23°C in the winter. The population is rural and sparse by comparison to the upper basin. The population of the area is principally involved in agricultural-related activities and dependence on the river for irrigation, transportation, and water supply predominates. Without the influence of the larger metropolitan areas on the income statistics, the average income of this sub-basin is much lower than that of the upper basin and it is estimated that over 50 per cent of the families within this sub-basin are within the category of indigent poor, based upon a study done by the IPEA in 1993.7 The key to the resolution of this problem is improved education, vocational training and the creation of employment and the development of economic opportunities within the region. This will require the wise and sustainable management of the water supplies of the region to support any economic advances within the sub-basin.

Sub-medio basin

This sub-basin is located in the middle to lower reaches of the basin in the States of Bahia and Pernambuco. The river in this sub-basin forms the border between the two states and represents a major source of irrigation for the famous fruit and vegetable production region of Petrolina/Juazeiro. The major federal and private irrigation projects located in the Petrolina/Juazeiro area along with the strong associated agro-industry represents one of the success stories of irrigated agriculture within Brazil. Fruit and vegetable crops are exported from this area throughout Brazil and to foreign countries. The development of the region was strongly influenced initially by the development of federally sponsored irrigation projects which provided the base for subsequent private investment. The federal effort was primarily the responsibility of the Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco (CODEVASF), a federal public company.8 While much has been said of the inefficiency and waste involving federal involvement in large irrigation projects, it is doubtful that this highly successful private enterprise zone in agro-industry would have developed without the seed of federal investment. The emancipation of these federal efforts now represents a potential for the continued expansion of this success. The present efforts of CODEVASF in the middle basin in the State of Bahia near the cities of Barreiras and Bom Jesus da Lapa hold the same potential for providing the seed for major private investment and development. The creation of employment within these areas should have as significant role in the reduction of poverty as it has had in the Juazeiro/Petrolina region. It has been estimated that approximately five jobs have been created for each hectare of land that has been put under irrigation within this region. This is directly attributable to the strong development of high-value irrigated agricultural production within the region along with the associated food-processing industry with improved transportation and marketing.

This sub-basin also contains the majority of the development for hydroelectric energy production within the São Francisco basin.9 The major dams and reservoirs of Sobradinho, Itaparica, Paulo Afonso, and Xingo provide renewable hydroelectric energy for most of the north-east of Brazil. The lower reach of the river within this sub-basin has a significant gradient and, therefore, has provided a strong potential for the development of hydroelectric energy. While this energy does not completely satisfy the demand within the São Francisco river basin, it provides the majority of the energy now needed and represents a stable foundation of renewable electric energy for the future.

The river within this sub-basin was originally marginally navigable through its upper reaches. With the existence of these storage and hydroelectric facilities, the regularization of flows to accommodate navigation represents a potential, if adequate coordination and management can be arranged for the multi-purpose use of the water.10 The reaches primarily affected by the hydroelectric development, with the exception of Sobradinho reservoir, were not originally navigable as the gradient and rapids precluded commercial navigation.

It is within this sub-basin, at a point below Sobradinho reservoir, that a transbasin diversion project has been proposed to supply water to the north-east states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba. This project has been proposed in several forms for many years but has consistently met with political opposition as well as economic and financing obstacles. A scaled-down version of this proposal was presented within the last two years that presents a more technically and economically reasonable project. However, this proposal has still not resolved the problem of opposition from the riparian states within the basin. Recent studies by a commission of the federal legislature re-examined this proposal as a part of the major study of the overall development potential for the entire river basin.

Within this sub-basin, all of the tributary rivers from both the left and right margins of the river are seasonal in nature and their flow contribution to the overall basin flow is minimal.

The principal municipal concentrations of population are located in the cities of Juazeiro in Bahia and Petrolina and Paulo Afonso in Pernambuco. The remainder of the communities and population within this sub-basin are mostly rural and dependent on agriculture and livestock production.

The vegetation of this semi-arid area is predominately caatinga and the soils are predominately thin and non-productive. Areas such as the Petrolina/Juazeiro agricultural region are an exception to this but the majority of the sub-basin is mostly suited to limited livestock production. Mineral production from this region of the São Francisco basin has also been historically limited and probably does not represent a significant economic factor within this sub-basin. Precipitation within the basin averages about 500 mm per year and the temperature averages about 27 °C during the summer to 24 °C during the winter period. The stability of the temperature along with the almost continuous solar radiation provides a good climate for agricultural production as long as good soil and water are available and are properly managed.

Baixo sub-basin

The baixo or lower sub-basin of the Rio São Francisco includes the States of Bahia, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Pernambuco. The river forms the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas through this sub-basin. The vegetation of the lower basin is primarily cerrado and mata atlantica with transitional zones between the cerrado and the caatinga of the upstream sertão areas. The river in this lower sub-basin was historically navigable and was utilized for the transportation of sugar cane production, other agricultural production, and limestone and building materials. Since the upstream control of flows for hydroelectric production and the gradual decline of the Federal Navigation Company of the São Francisco (FRANAVE), the use of the river for commercial navigation has gradually diminished. The lower reaches of this sub-basin contain significant coastal deltas and coastal wetlands. Some of this area has been developed for agricultural use through the use of polder construction and drainage systems. The lower sub-basin is humid in its lower reaches in the mata atlantica but contains significant semi-arid drainages on its upper left margin with principally caatinga vegetation. Precipitation in this reach varies from 1,300 mm along the coast to 500 mm along the upstream boundaries of the sub-basin. The sub-basin population is principally concentrated near the coast in smaller municipalities and in rural communities. The average income of the population within this reach is low with the majority of the population falling in the category of poor and indigent.11 The lower reaches of the river system have historically been used for transportation of agricultural products to markets along the coast, and the fisheries represent an important resource for this region. The ecological regime within the delta and coastal margins of the river also represent an asset that has not been fully defined or protected. The beach regions to the south of the delta represent a major nesting area for threatened and endangered sea turtle species.

Indigenous populations

The São Francisco river basin was home to an estimated 26,000 indigenous inhabitants, according to a survey done in 1988.12 This represents approximately 0.6 per cent of the rural population of the basin. Of this indigenous population, approximately 19,495 or 74 per cent lived in the downstream reaches of the middle sub-basin and the lower basin in the States of Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe. These are predominately rural agrarian populations that are dependent on the land for their livelihood. The majority are involved in subsistence livestock raising and dry farming or in woodcutting with some crafts production. A significant population within Pernambuco was severely impacted by the construction of hydroelectric production systems such as the Itaparica Project and adequate mitigation and amelioration of these impacts has yet to be accomplished. The indigenous populations of the remainder of the basin represent less than 0.2 per cent of the total rural population of the basin. The economic and social condition of these indigenous populations is in reality not a great deal different than that of the majority of poor rural inhabitants of the basin.

Hydrology of the river system

The annual discharge of the Rio São Francisco at its mouth averages over 94,000,000 mil m3 per year (See tables 1 and 2, Flows of Rio São Francisco and its principal tributaries13). The natural flow in the reaches through the middle basin below the principal perennial tributaries average between 2,100 m3/second and 2,800 m3/second and with a natural flow of approximately 3,000 m3/second near the mouth of the river in the lower sub-basin. Normal natural maximum flows occur during the month of March and average approximately 12,950 m3/second at Juazeiro near the boundary between the middle and sub-middle sub-basins and 12,967 m3/second at Pão da Acucar located near the mouth of the river. Normal minimum flows at these stations occur during the month of September and average 671 m3/second and 842 m3/second at these two locations, respectively.14 As the river is operated today, the natural flows are highly regulated by the extensive hydroelectric developments and are regulated to optimize energy production and to control flooding of the river margins.

In addition to the mainstream of the river, flows in the upper sub-basin are contributed from the major tributaries of the Das Velhas river (average flow 292 m3/second), the Paracatu river (average flow 436 m3/second) and the Urucuia river (average flow 251 m3/second). The upper sub-basin contributes over 70 per cent of the overall flow of the river basin. The average annual flow of the river at the lower boundary of this sub-basin at the Manga gauging station is 2,050 m3/second (table 1: Flows in the Rio São Francisco).

Within the middle sub-basin, two principal tributaries contribute substantially to the flow of the river. These are the Corrente river with average flows of 251 m3/second and the Grande river with average flows of 262 m3/second. With the exception of the Das Velhas river in the upper sub-basin, all of the principal tributaries flow into the river from its left or western margin where orographic precipitation forms the majority of the water source (table 2: Flows in the principal tributaries of the Rio São Francisco).

Table 1: Valley of the São Francisco, characteristics of the principal rivers


San Francisco bankside


Period of registration

Distance from source to ocean1

Drainage area

Average annual discharge

Specific average discharge

São Francisco

Trés Marias












Das Velhas

Right: Direita

Várzea da Palma






São Francisco


Barra do Jequitai













São Francisco


Cach. Da Manteiga






Left: Esquerda

Porto Alegre






São Francisco


São Romão








Barra do Escuro






São Francisco


São Francisco


















Verde Grande


Boca da Caatinga














São Francisco










Pt.° Novo






São Francisco
















São Francisco














Pão de Acucar











1 Or from the station when located on the river San Francisco.

Table 2: Valley of the São Francisco, average monthly flows

Table 2: Valley of the São Francisco, average monthly flows (contd. 1)

Table 2: Valley of the São Francisco, average monthly flows (contd. 2)

DNAEE (National Department of Water and Electric Energy Departamento Nacional de Aguas e Energia Eletrica).

Institutional and political situation

As was previously mentioned, the Rio São Francisco flows through five different states of the north-east. In actuality, it can also include the Federal District of Brasília as one of the headwater tributaries begins within the Distrito Federal. The states have varying degrees of institutional development in the area of water resources, with the States of Bahia and Minas Gerais being most advanced.

The State of Minas Gerais includes an agency with the responsibility of planning and management of water resources. This agency, the Department of Water Resources, is a part of the Secretariat of Minerals, Water and Energy. The state has begun a cooperative process of preparing a master plan for the management of water resources. It is also in the process of formulating a water law that will govern the issuance of water rights and the administration and management of the water resources. Various other entities including Rural Minas have been active in promoting the development and use of water within the state.

The State of Bahia passed a comprehensive water law in 1995 that created a Superintendencia of Water Resources within the Secretariat of Water Resources. This law clearly spells out the policy of the state in water resources and provides for the issuance of water rights, permits for infrastructure construction, dam safety, and water tariffs. This law is one of the most comprehensive in Brazil. The state has also completed master plans or "Pianos Diretores" for the majority of the significant river basins within the state and is embarking on the development of a water-resource management project for those basins considered to be of highest priority within the state.

The State of Pernambuco recently formed a Directorate of Water Resources within the Secretariat of Science, Technology and Environment. This agency is beginning the preparation of water-resources master plans for the state as well as working on a comprehensive water law. It has progressed extremely well in the formulation of an extensive computerized water-resource database system that includes both surficial and underground water-resources data.

The States of Alagoas and Sergipe are in the process of delineating water-resources responsibility within the state and are beginning work on the planning and institutional structure to provide good water management.

The principal federal entities with responsibility within the basin are CEEIVASF, the Executive Committee for Integrated Studies of the Hydrographic Basin of the Rio São Francisco; CODEVASF, Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Rio São Francisco; CHESF, Companhia Hidroeléctrica do São Francisco, the major power agency of the basin and SUDENE, an organization formed for the purpose of comprehensive planning in the north-east.

CODEVASF was created for the purpose of developing the economy of the São Francisco basin. Historically it has principally been involved in the development of irrigated agriculture and agribusiness within the region. This has included some major successes such as the Nilho Coelho Project in the Petrolina/Juazeiro area with its successful high value crops. It has also included some smaller projects of less success where the efficiency of the irrigation systems is questionable and the cropping pattern continues to be low-value crops and subsistence farming. This has resulted in areas that are producing at a level of value far below that which would justify the extremely expensive federal investments in the projects. In recent years, there has been a movement within the CODEVASF projects toward greater participation by user-governed water districts that have accepted responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the systems and the responsibility to set and collect water-user charges sufficient to maintain these projects at a sustainable level. This move toward decentralization has improved the level of maintenance and the rate of collection of the water charges. It has also resulted in a greater consciousness on the part of the users of the real cost of operation and maintenance of these systems. As a result, the sustainability of the systems has increased. CODEVASF has, for many years, concentrated on being a development and operations agency. However, an analysis by a special committee appointed by the legislature to review the future of the São Francisco basin has strongly recommended that this role should shift to one of promotion and coordination with greater empowerment of the user organizations and the private sectors.15 This shift will add a greater impetus to the development of the role of the private sector in this basin. CODEVASF has a strong regional presence within each of the sub-basins and can represent a strong focus-point for the development of all sectors of the economy of the basin. CODEVASF has made some excellent progress in the development of the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the analysis of soils, cropping patterns, river morphology, and land use within the irrigated areas of the basin. This system could provide a foundation for the analysis of the entire basin from the standpoint of potential development, environmental protection, watershed reclamation, water pollution control, and navigation. While a great deal of additional work would be required to add these functions to the database, the increase in reliability of planning would pay off in the long run. CODEVASF has also been responsible for a number of successful innovations in the area of training and assistance to the small farmers and the youth of the project areas. This has included a youth vocational training centre in the Formoso A and H projects near Bom Jesus da Lapa in Bahia and a very successful revolving fund investment programme to assist small farmers in beginning to produce high value fruit crops and to learn the technology for fruit production and new technology for localized irrigation systems.16 While this agency has its successes and its problems, the overall result of its activities within the São Francisco basin has been very positive.

In 1959, the Superintendencia para o Desenvolvimento do Nordeste (SUDENE) was created and given a wide range of responsibilities, including coordination of all ongoing activities and investments in the region, including the Drought Polygon of the São Francisco basin. These efforts culminated in the mid-1970s with the creation of several new programmes and financial mechanisms aimed primarily at settlement, land distribution, and agro-industrial modernization. This trend continued through the 1980s as the Federal Government created several additional programmes for the rural north-east. SUDENE's influence in the comprehensive planning for the basin has diminished with the growing strength of the planning and development capabilities of the states of the north-east.

Hydroelectric energy from the Rio São Francisco

CHESF is the agency that is responsible for the development, operation and maintenance of hydroelectric generation and the bulk energy distribution throughout the north-east. CHESF operates plants with approximately 7,800 MW of installed capacity in the Rio São Francisco basin and its tributaries with an additional 2,500 MW under construction and a planned total future capacity of over 26,000 MW.17 CHESF works in close cooperation with the state electrical companies in each state and in some instances, has transferred generation responsibility to the states, i.e. Tres Marias power plant, transferred to CEMIG, the State Electrical Company of Minas Gerais. As was previously explained, most of the hydroelectric generation in the São Francisco river basin is located in the sub-middles sub-basin. The hydraulic gradient in this reach is sufficient for the installation of efficient hydroelectric facilities and the flow in the river at this point provides a stable source of energy. The installation of this hydroelectric system has not been without some problems, however. The Itaparica Hydroelectric Project, located in the centre of a large concentration of indigenous people, was constructed and placed in operation without a good plan for the mitigation of the impact of the project on this population. The economic need to place the facility into operation immediately upon its completion caused the displaced population to be relocated without sufficient preparation of an area to receive them. As a result, the dislocation of these people has yet to be mitigated in a satisfactory manner.18 This seemingly callous disregard for the rights of people displaced because of overriding public economic need mars the success story of these major power developments and casts a doubt on the ability of this large federal agency to continue the development of the hydroelectric potential of the basin in a socially and environmentally acceptable manner. In addition, the agency has been slow to accept the principal of multiple use of the river system and continues to operate its major facilities with little regard for the comprehensive management of the system to meet multi-purpose needs. Future optimization of the use of the São Francisco river basin will require a major change in attitude and policy with regard to this problem of integrated management.

The present and future demands for electric energy within the basin continue to outstrip the available energy. It is estimated that the demand for electric energy will double within the next 10 years. As the sites now developed represent the best sites on the river system, it can be assumed that further development of hydroelectric generation on this system will have increasingly greater impact on both competing demands for the water supplies and the riparian environment as well as severe conflicts with the existing land use. The Government of Brazil will be faced with major prioritization decisions and it can be expected that each development will face increased opposition from vested stakeholders and non-governmental organizations. Increasing need for energy for irrigation, industry, and municipal use will face trade-offs in the use of water for other demands as well as increasing pressure from those interested in environmental preservation and preservation of instream uses such as fish production and navigation. Increasing pressures can also be expected for restoration and preservation of the delta and coastal wetlands associated with the river system that are dependent upon the flood flows of the Rio São Francisco.


From a historic point of view, the Rio São Francisco was navigable during some parts of the year in the reaches from the location of the Tres Marias reservoir in Minas Gerais to a point near Cabrobo, approximately 400 km downstream of the City of Juazeiro, Bahia. It was also navigable in its downstream reaches from a point near Pão da Acucar to the mouth of the river, a distance of approximately 200 km (map 4: Longitudinal profile of the Rio São Francisco.19) In addition the primary tributaries of the Corrente and the Rio Grande have navigable reaches of 75 km and 350 km respectively. The primary cargo of the barges and shallow draft craft were agricultural production, livestock, and building materials. The original navigation was primarily accomplished by the private sector. However, in 1903 the State of Bahia created a public company called the Empresa de Viacão do São Francisco to manage navigation on the river within the State of Bahia. This company eventually evolved into the present Companhia de Navegacão do São Francisco, FRANAVE. However, within recent years, commercial shipping on the river has decreased to a negligible amount. From a volume of 120,000 tons within Bahia in 1987, the volume had decreased to 26,000 tons in 1994 and continues to decrease at this time. The function and existence of this public company is presently under study. With the diminished flows due to hydroelectric generation and the obstruction of the river by dams and reservoirs, major coordination and flow regulation would be required if extensive transportation on this waterway is to resume. It is estimated that, within the parameters of optimum hydroelectric generation, sufficient water could be maintained in the river to support a level of shipping that could approximate 4.5 million tons per year.20 Such levels would require close cooperation with CHESF for optimal management of the river flow, extensive dredging and port reconstruction, and extensive investment in barges and craft. It is estimated that this investment requirement would be in the order of US$9.5bn. The waterway system or hidrovia would also need to connect to extensive highway and railway transportation networks to eventually get the products to the consuming market or the ports on the Atlantic. While the extent of investment appears quite high, the benefits of such a system on the economic development of this region and the value of the products exported from the valley could be substantial. Consequently, the evaluation of the development of a comprehensive system of transportation for the valley that includes extensive use of the potential for water transportation should be considered.

Map 4: Longitudinal profile of the Rio São Francisco

Historic planning efforts

The valley of the São Francisco has been the subject of numerous planning and developmental effort over the years. Within relatively recent times, major planning studies were done by DNAEE21 and CHESF with regard to the hydroelectric potential of the river.

During the 1980s a major effort was made to analyse and design a proposed project for the transbasin diversion of water from the Rio São Francisco to the non-riparian north-east States of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, and Paraíba as well as to the Sertão region of Pernambuco. This plan to divert large volumes of water from the São Francisco river to the fertile lands of the sertão, located in the States of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, and Pernambuco was the continuance of proposals which had originated early in the century. Initial studies, which included detailed field investigations, were started in 1981 by DNOS (National Department of Reclamation Works). In 1984, at the government's request, the World Bank financed the preparation of an Action Plan for the São Francisco Transbasin Project. This study was done by the government using an international joint-venture of consulting firms supported by cooperation from the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The main recommendations of the plan included: (i) full development of local and state water-resources management institutional capacity prior to the construction of the São Francisco diversion works; (ii) establishment of irrigation pilot areas in the plateau of Jaguaribe in Ceará and Apodi in Rio Grande do Norte; (iii) creation of a multisectoral entity to prepare detailed plans and implement the project; and (iv) the requirement that institutional constraints to efficient water use at both the state and federal level be resolved prior to project implementation.

During the past decade, the government with the support of the state governments has undertaken the construction of some of the most important hydraulic infrastructure required to exploit local water resources within the recipient states. This included the completion of the Armando Ribeira Goncalves dam in the Piranhas-Acu river in Rio Grande do Norte and the planning, design, and commencement of the Castanhão dam and reservoir to be located in the Jaguaribe river in Ceará. Recently, the federal government and the State of Ceará have started a serious effort, supported by the World Bank, to provide a solid and comprehensive legal framework for promoting the rational use of water for irrigation and other purposes.

This includes a regulatory framework that promotes the registry, allocation and use of transferable water rights. The other potential recipient states are moving to establish strong state institutional structures to provide the capacity to utilize efficiently both local water and water that might be derived from such a transbasin diversion project. The basic proposal has been debated and modified several times since its inception and is still under consideration in a greatly diminished form.

CODEVASF, with the assistance of the OAS, prepared a major master planning effort for the development of the valley which was completed in 1989. This study, termed the PLANVASF or Piano Diretor para o Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco, examined the needs and potential for development in agriculture, hydroelectric development, water supply, waste treatment, commercialization of production from the valley, and the transportation needed to support production and commercialization efforts. This comprehensive planning effort forms the foundation for the ongoing efforts by CODEVASF within the valley. This plan also extensively examined the problem of the rural poor and the indigenous populations of the valley.

In 1984, as a result of the work of an Inter-State Ministerial Commission, the concept of a River Basin Committee was adopted to undertake specific planning studies within the basin. This committee, CEEIVASF, was among the first to consider the São Francisco river basin as a hydrologic unit. However, the focus of the committee was primarily technical. Although it contributed to the idea of decentralization of decision-making from the federal level to the river basin level, it lacked a mechanism for self-financing and lacked any real authority for implementation of its findings and conclusions. The work of the committee was continued through the Inter-State Parliamentary Commission for the Development of the Rio São Francisco (CIPE), which was comprised of the Presidents of the Legislative Assemblies of the five states comprising the largest portion of the land area of the basin. In addition, the local government authorities created UNIVALE, the União das Prefeituras do Vale do São Francisco, which included representation from the municipalities in the basin. This union provides technical advice on issues such as energy production, irrigation development, sanitation and human settlements, tourism, transportation, education, and environmental protection.

More recently, in 1995, the states of the north-east in cooperation with the National Secretariat of Water Resources, formed a group representing the water-resources sectors of each state to foster water-resources legal and institutional cooperation throughout the northeast including the São Francisco basin. This committee was formed in Natal, RGN with the signing of the Carta da Natal. One of the major topics of this group was the Rio São Francisco, including the consideration of the potential impacts of the proposed Transposicão Project. This group continues to meet and to discuss topics such as the water legal and institutional framework, joint efforts to study integrated management of the Rio São Francisco and other areas of potential cooperation between the states and the Federal Government in the water-resources sector.

Irrigated agricultural development

The development of the irrigated agriculture of the São Francisco basin has been a mix of the public sector and a strong private sector. The original development of irrigation for high-value crops in the basin can be attributed to the public development of the irrigation projects located in the States of Bahia and Pernambuco near the cities of Juazeiro and Petrolina. This development provided the foundation of irrigation and market potential that attracted substantial private investment. This combination resulted in the strong economy of this region. In the past 10 years, continued efforts by CODEVASF for development of federal irrigation projects in the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia have resulted in nuclei for the potential growth of agricultural economies in the outlying areas of these states. Projects such as the Jaiba and Gorituba projects in Minas and the Formoso A and Formoso H projects in Bahia form centres around which private irrigation endeavours are beginning to develop as they have in the Petrolina/Juazeiro area. While these federal projects only represent less than 10 per cent of the irrigated agriculture in Brazil, their presence represents a strong incentive for the continued expansion of the private sector. Recent proposals by the Federal Government for a "Novo Modelo de Irrigação" or new model for irrigation, proposes strong public/private sector cooperation in the development of the agricultural sector to its maximum potential. This will probably include emancipation or privatization of the existing federal projects as well as major joint efforts between the public and private sectors to develop the major infrastructure necessary to provide incentives for private sector development.

Special Commission for the Development of the Valley of the São Francisco

The Federal Legislature, during 1995, appointed a special commission to review the planning efforts within the valley and to develop a recommended action plan to pursue the development of the vast potential of this valley. This Special Commission for the Development of the São Francisco Valley was created by Act no. 480 of 1995 of the Federal Senate, to promote discussion on strategies, policies, programmes, and priorities for the development of the valley, both present and future. Included in its mandate was the alleviation of poverty and balancing of socio-economic development and the environment in the Rio São Francisco basin, including the rehabilitation of degraded lands. This commission was empowered to undertake discussions with both private and public sector agencies and organizations in order to promote sustainable development in the basin.

The commission concluded its efforts with a final report in November of 1995 that recommended action to further the coordination of the development of the basin. During this study, the commission held hearings to accept testimony, appointed special consultants to assemble and review past studies and work with regard to the basin and reviewed the institutional framework that presently has a responsible role within the basin. This special commission was charged with:

(a) Discussion of questions over the strategy of development of the valley with particular regard for the poor of the region, and with special regard to the socio-economic well-being of the region and concern for the environment.

(b) Analysis of proposals for the management and recuperation of the environment of the basin.

(c) Constitution of a forum for the discussion over the potential economic development of the valley and the north-east region including the analysis of the potential for both public and private investment.

(d) Discussion of the potential for new projects which focus on the sustainable development of the basin.

The work of this commission represents a new and solid expression of interest in the sustainable development of the basin in a comprehensive manner. The recommendation of the commission includes the final statement that the valley of the São Francisco river represents a dynamic opportunity for modem development with advantages for the entire north-east of Brazil and that it constitutes a potential that merits the attention and priority of the entire nation. The following excerpts from the summary of recommendations of this commission provide a representative indication of the policy trends of the Federal Legislature of Brazil.22 The commission recommendations in their entirety constitute the probable framework for the future national policy for the development of the valley of the Rio São Francisco.

Excerpts from the Report of the Senate Special Commission

The productive sector

1. The Brazilian Cerrados emerged in the past decade as an area of enviable potential for grain production. The domain of the Cerrados in the São Francisco Valley is the scene of accelerated growth but, unfortunately, it still requires more effective official support in the area of credit and the development of technology adapted to its particular conditions. Fledgling infrastructure is also one of the obstacles to the expansion and marketing of production. In view of this, we think it is worthwhile to make the following recommendations:

· Establish an Agricultural Limestone Program, with a credit line from the Bank of Brazil, in the form of investment, for a period of 2 years to stimulate the expansion of farming area and productivity gains in the Northern Cerrado - Bahia, Piauí, Maranhao and Tocantins.

· Promote a Storage Program, also for the area of the Northern Cerrado.

· Support agricultural diversification in the Northern Cerrado region to ensure the region's economic and productive sustainability.

Since the Integrated Northern Development Corridor Program already exists, created within the Bank of Brazil but with limited scope, and with the same objectives as the credit lines proposed herein, it is suggested that its name be changed to Northern Cerrado Development Program and that its geographical area be expanded (to include Western Bahia and the State of Tocantins, as well as the Cerrados of Piauí and Maranhao), modifying its scope and strengthening the availability of its financing, so that it can not only fulfill its original functions but also constitute an effective instrument for Federal Government action to develop the Northern Cerrado.

2. Irrigated Agriculture clearly modified the reality and perspectives of the São Francisco Valley. From a predominantly semiarid region, coexisting with the natural problems of periodic droughts, and confined to subsistence farming, the Valley is emerging as a nationally renowned alternative area for the production of vegetables and fruits, and is already participating successfully on world markets. However, the expansion of irrigated agriculture remains affected by obstacles that limit and hinder its full development. We therefore present recommendations on each aspect of this activity.

2.1 Financing

(a) For private projects under implementation:

· Create a credit line in BNDES and BNB that contemplates investment plus working capital (for costing of up to two and a half crops per year), along the lines of industrial projects.

(b) For private projects under operation:

· Create a specific credit line for 'irrigated costing,' over a 12-month period, through a rural credit policy carried out by the Bank of Brazil and a private network; and

· Adopt the system of evolving guarantees for costing credits supported by pre-purchase contracts and other market variants, especially those related to fruits.

(c) For public projects:

· Continue to make use of external financing resources, especially from the IDB and World Bank, as well as to link the financial investment corporations of these institutions (for example, IFC) to finance private agents who may participate in these projects;

· Assure, both in the budget and financially, public counterpart resources for the projects, including external (such as OECF) or local (through BNDES) cofinancing;

· Use the public services concessions policy (Law n° 9.074/95, art. n° 1, V) to involve the private sector in the implementation and operation of the irrigation system, as well as a means to promote the effective 'emancipation' of operating irrigated areas; and

· Clearly define investments for public infrastructure, which will be made on a nonreimbursable basis, such as the implementation of primary infrastructure to transport water to the area to be irrigated.

2.2 Costs

With the aim of reducing public irrigation costs in the Northeast, the following guidelines should be adopted, among others:

· Transfer responsibility to states and municipalities for the implementation of social infrastructure (for example, health, education, etc.);

· Encourage co-participation by electrical power licensees in the implementation of transmission lines and substations, along the same lines as those operating with private projects;

· Assign responsibility and duties, according to government level, in relation to highway linkages; and

· Eliminate expenses for urban equipment, such as housing development (the irrigator should preferably reside on his own plot), airport construction, public buildings, etc.

2.3 Management of irrigated areas

· Make flexible the model for settlement of irrigated areas, defining on a case-by-case basis the best development scheme - ranging from exclusive settlements of colonists to exclusive business settlements. The current situation, defined a priori by decree, does not correspond to policy aimed at optimizing the productive potential of irrigated areas.

· Adopt strict efficiency criteria aimed at the recovery of public investment, according to previously performed feasibility studies.

· Establish and adopt production plans for irrigated areas or centers in order to encourage specialized production or a suitable mix of production.

· Encourage production and productivity gains in relation to land, labor and water in order to optimize the use of investment.

2.4 Technology and human resources

· Develop, in partnership with private initiative, research programs aimed at improving and disseminating technology suited to irrigated agriculture, under the São Francisco Valley's various natural conditions.

· Promote human resources training and improvement programs in the São Francisco River Basin, aimed at different economic activities (fruit growing, horticulture, livestock, fisheries, agro-industry, etc.).

3. The opening of markets to the import of agricultural products, as well as the achievement of new markets and the improvement of agricultural production, imply the introduction of product quality control, which involves:

· Modernizing, training and streamlining disease control, either in relation to internal production conditions or to imported products.

· Including in the Foreign Commerce Program a scheme for marketing and for market promotion and information, in order to support efforts already made by various producers' groups.


The infrastructure issue is at the center of the development policy for the São Francisco Valley, since it conditions and limits the rational use of resources, the expansion economic activities that will promote the well-being of the population and the very sustainability of development. To date, however, the Valley's infrastructure has been implemented only sporadically and disjointedly.

It is understood that it is essential not only to make up for lost time and streamline efforts but also to set into motion a process of linking the agencies and sectors involved in order to conceive and formulate medium- and long-term solutions.

1. The current development scenario in the São Francisco Valley needs a new stance with respect to power generation. In light of requirements for different uses of the basin's water resources there is a need for redefinition of priorities and greater linkage is needed between the power sector and other competing uses within the basin. We recommend the following points, among others:

· Consider concluded the power generation cycle along the main course of the São Francisco river, conditioning new uses to interest in regulating the river, navigability and irrigation;

· Promote operational integration between CHESF and CEMIG, that is, among Tres Marias, Sobradinho and the Paulo Afonso falls, in order to regulate the river, minimizing the impact of floods, assuring operational flow conditions for navigability and facilitating the operation of irrigation projects. DNAEE should demand that, in the short term, both companies jointly prepare an operational plan to be reviewed by other interested parties;

· Enable hydroelectric use from Formoso, on the São Francisco river, upstream from Pirapora, which is important for controlling floods and improving navigation conditions on the river.

· Deal urgently with the conclusion of the Itaparica resettlement, in the lower-middle São Francisco. It is absurd that, with the hydroelectric plant operating, the living standards of the population removed from flooded areas have not yet been restored;

· Promote the timely completion of the hydroelectric development projects in Sacos (116 MW) on the Formoso river, and in Sitio Grande (19 MW) on the Femeas river, both of which are tributaries of the São Francisco river;

· Conclude the Barreiras substation, operating it at a potential of 230 KW, with works under the responsibility of CHESF, to allow oil to be replaced by electricity in the operation of nearly 400 irrigation pivots in western Bahia, representing an irrigated area of 40,000 hectares;

· Implement a rural electrification program in western Bahia, through the BNDES operation-program, to allow irrigation, processing of agricultural production, implementation of agro-industries and improvement of producers' living conditions, as well as fostering regional income generation and retention.

2. The issue of transportation in the São Francisco Valley has been one of the strongest obstacles to the marketing of production. Along with the inefficiency of road transportation and very poor road conditions, there is a need to harness the flows of transportable production under a more modern, economical and flexible integrated scheme. In view of this, the following are recommended:

· Implement immediately the São Francisco waterway, a veritable backbone crossing the region from north to south and connecting the Northeast with the Southeast of Brazil, which remains unharnessed. At present, highways, with much higher costs, remain responsible for the greater share of commodity transportation within the region. This is not efficient in rational and economic term in light of the cost-benefit ratio of the immediate operation of the waterway. The allocation of the less than US$10 million needed to transform the current navigable route into a waterway is a low-cost, highly significant investment.

· Begin the process of enhancing the intermodal transport system of the basin, with special emphasis on the railway sector, by recovering the Central line (Juazeiro-Salvador) and implementing the Trans-Northeastern line: Petrolina-Salgueiro (PE) Missao Velha (CE);

· Recover and restructure federal highways BR-020/242/166 and BR-135 which link productive areas with consumer markets and seaports. The waterway will also place the São Francisco valley on a much broader stage with clearly defined inter-regional integration roles.

· Streamline the application of the port modernization law which will allow rather promising partnerships to be made in this sector, as long as (in the case of the modernization, expansion and construction of river ports) there are no problem which hinder the modernizaton of seaports, such as those related to the use of labor;

· Conclude the modernization of the Petrolina (PE) airport and plan the modernization of airports in other agro-industrial centers, in line with increased local production and its consolidation.

Water-resource and environmental management

To date, the water potential of the São Francisco basin has not been used in a rational manner nor have requirements been adjusted to sustainable resource maintenance and environmental preservation. These uncoordinated actions by various levels and sectors of government are not being conducted in such a way as to enable proper management and resolution of conflicts. It is therefore necessary to adopt a position regarding the river's different functions, making them compatible and assigning priorities, and keeping in mind the region's sustainable development. Along with the considerations on this issue made in this Report, and with the legislative proposal to create the São Francisco River Basin Water Resource Management Committee, the following are also necessary:

· Streamline the water grant process, under the responsibility of DNAEE, preferably linking and decentralizing this activity by means of an operational agreement with state water resource agencies;

· As a part of the final evaluation studies for the São Francisco Trans-Basin Water Diversion Project, recommend that the following conditions be considered, among others:

(a) Reformulate the project proposed in 1994, due to its evident unsuitability to the characteristics, water yield and demand ratios and morphologic features of the São Francisco river.

(b) By means of proper planning and execution, promote the optimized use of available water resources in the basins of the semi-arid Northeast, especially in those that would benefit from a transbasin diversion, in order to avoid the implementation of unnecessary infrastructure which become useless because of inadequate water availability.

(c) Carry out an Environmental Impact Study and the respective Environmental Impact Report (EIA/RIMA) which, among other aspects, emphasize the project's impact on the river.

(d) Promote broad discussion of the EIA-RIMA and the Project along the lines indicated in the country's environmental legislation in each affected state in various suitable forums as well as in federal agencies.

(e) Assess impact on areas in receiving basins (filtration, evapotranspiration, salinization, etc.) as well as economic and social effects.

(f) Preserve the installed capacity for power generation along the main course of the São Francisco river, especially at the Paulo Afonso falls.

(g) Preserve the river's navigability by means of a minimum year-round depth.

(h) Preserve irrigation conditions for 800,000 ha (calculation adopted by PLANVASF) in the São Francisco river basin.

(i) Proceed to implement a sufficient amount of actions aimed at the environmental recovery of the São Francisco basin, such as recovery of riparian forests, riparian ecology and vegetation.

(j) Define the operational, institutional and financial model, including timetables, type of management and criteria for evaluation and interruption of operations in risk and emergency situations in the São Francisco basin.

· Preparation and execution of a broad Environmental Recovery and Preservation Program in the São Francisco Basin, involving the Federal Government (principally IBAMA, DNAEE and the Secretariat of Water Resources), and member states of the Basin. Such a broad plan should include:

(a) Set-up of a management information and monitoring system; incorporation of water courses;

(b) Licensing and control of activities with potential impact on the São Francisco river's area of coverage and its tributaries;

(c) Establishment and application of uniform methodological criteria for analysis, evaluation and control;

(d) Preparation of a diagnostic of the current situation and follow-up of the evolution of the river's environmental conditions and its basin;

(e) Riparian forest and ecology recovery program;

(f) Implementation of parks, reserves and environmental protection areas;

(g) Development of a management model for linkage, integration and delegation of skills and duties in the environmental field in the basin area;

(h) The water use rights grant and control system; and

(i) Environmental zoning of the basin, with special emphasis on specific conditions in place at the source and mouth.

The development of a comprehensive plan should be the object of a request for international financing, shared by the Federal and State Governments, along the lines of the PAPP - Northeast Rural Development Program (World Bank) and may also involve sanitation works (only 5 of the 97 cities on the riverbank have sanitary sewer systems), flood control, fisheries program, reforestation, public health and formal and environmental education.

Administrative management of the basin

· In view of inter-institutional linkage and political efforts what stands out is the need to establish a Regional Council for Coordinating Efforts in the São Francisco Valley, comprised of various organizations and agencies as well as State Government and private sector representatives. The Committee's creation should necessarily correspond to a Federal Government decision to give the São Francisco valley its deserved prominence and priority.

The Council's agenda should include issues related to hydroelectric development and integrated operations management in the basin in order to make compatible the multiple uses of water and ensure the preservation of natural resources, the acceleration of irrigation projects, the implementation of the São Francisco waterway, the mobilization of rural credit as well as other items currently occurring in a disorganized manner. The existence of a forum at this decision-making level would also make it possible to maximize the use of available financial resources and adjust them to the area's specific characteristics.

The Council's management model and institutional characteristics are not clearly defined but should be such that the duties assigned to it can be carried out smoothly. In truth, it must contain sectoral and spatial elements so as not to lose sight of the broader objectives of sustainable development of the basin. This Council should include specific Thematic Commissions to deal with, among other issues, credit and financing; agriculture, livestock and agro-industry; irrigation; transportation; energy, environment and natural resources; social service and action, etc.

· Recover, both conceptually and operationally, CODEVASF's role as a development agency with a broad range of activities in the São Francisco valley. It is time to accord CODEVASF the status of a semi-public company in which there is room for the operational flexibility and decision-making criteria of the private sector, as a transitional stage for future privatization.

It is foreseeable that CODEVASF's efforts are insufficient for leveraging the valley's development, even if we only consider public and official actions. This is why the first, administratively oriented suggestion was the Regional Committee to Coordinate Efforts in the Valley. But, in addition, a stronger private sector presence is essential so that the valley's development objectives can be achieved.

When considering a development agency for the São Francisco valley, the need for an increasing private sector initiative should be included, which should be organized in parallel with the public sector, along the lines of state or even sub-regional development agencies, as in the case of Tiete-Paraná.

Such an initiative by the private sector would greatly facilitate, in the medium term, better linkage between public and private efforts in the valley.

Finally, note should be made of the mobilization occurring in civil society and in political representation, such as the São Francisco SOS Movement, the Inter-State Parliamentary Commission for Sustainable Development Studies in the São Francisco Valley - CIPE São Francisco, the São Francisco Valley Union of Municipalities, among others, as significant indications of consciousness-raising in the São Francisco Valley which needs to be encouraged and strengthened.

The ideas expressed in this Report are the outcome of discussions and studies carried out by the commission and are certainly still in their infancy, needing to be further developed, aimed at clear and definitive structure. What is important at this time is to acknowledge that they are founded on principles stemming from consensus and thus, more than being recommendations and conclusions, they are the unanimous convictions of all those who study, live in, and work for the development of the São Francisco valley.23

Summary and conclusions

According to the final report of the Senate Special Commission for the Development of the São Francisco Valley (1995), the studies undertaken in the basin have never reflected a basin-wide approach and an integrated management perspective has never been applied. In the same report, it is mentioned that there are no legal or institutional frameworks in place to administer and implement this integrated management approach.24

The Rio São Francisco is one of the most important resources of the north-east of Brazil. Its historic impact on the economic and cultural development of the basin is only dwarfed by its potential to enhance the future of the region if managed in an integrated and sustainable manner. One of the major accomplishments of the Special Commission of the Senate was to emphasize the participatory process by taking testimony from a large group of various stakeholders regarding the future of the valley. As mentioned above, the findings of the commission revealed the long history of sporadic and uncoordinated development within the basin as well as the distinct need for comprehensive and coordinated management through a multi-participatory basin authority with the responsibility and authority to make critical decisions in both the development and operation of the river system. The careful development of such an institution is the key to any successful evolutionary integrated management process for the basin. This will require the cooperation and, in some instances, the lessening of the unilateral authority of several of the relatively autonomous organizations involved in the basin and a modification of their proprietary agendas to include consideration of the multi-purpose use of the basin resources in a sustainable manner. The careful development of this basin authority with the inclusion of all stakeholders in the management decision-making process is a formidable challenge that will require that all involved set aside personal agendas and concentrate on the well-being of the basin, its resources and its people. While the findings and recommendations of the commission are comprehensive and represent a policy framework for the future planning for the basin, it is worthwhile to summarize some concluding points and add a few additional considerations for the deliberation of those that will undertake this far-reaching task.

1. The key to the implementation of a comprehensive programme for the basin will be the development of a strong participatory authority for the basin that provides representation of all stakeholders and that has the decision-making authority, responsibility, and financial and political sustainability to address these problems on a long-term basis. This must be approached carefully to ensure that this does not just evolve into another non-productive layer of bureaucracy or into a politically motivated mechanism for special interests. This authority must truly represent the interests of the citizens of the basin and be directly responsible to this public for demonstrable results.

2. The process of developing a legal, institutional, and management framework for the basin will require fairly major modifications of the legal interrelationships between the existing institutions with roles in the basin. This could be politically controversial and will require considerable political fortitude to achieve an optimum result in the face of the many special interests that will emerge.

3. The process will require a great deal of consensus building and a strong participatory approach at all levels, coupled with a well-planned public information and education programme that includes the citizens of the basin, private sector business, the media, the political and governmental leaders within the basin and the bureaucrats who influence the basin and that have vested interests in the status quo.

4. The consensus building that will be necessary can only be accomplished if full and transparent information is available to both the decision makers and the stakeholders within the basin. This will require the establishment of a comprehensive and accessible database for the basin that reflects the hydrology, meteorology, geomorphology, ecology, sociology, and economic parameters of the basin. Unless such a database is developed in a manner that gains the trust of all stakeholders, controversies over data and the impact analyses that will depend on these data will overshadow the compromises needed to reach consensus. One of the first steps must be to examine all available data and to determine where gaps in either sufficiency of data or credibility of data exist. Efforts must then be undertaken to provide the most comprehensive database possible and to reach agreement of all involved in the planning and negotiation process as to the credibility of the database for the purposes of the planning and management of the basin.

5. In order to assess adequately the impacts of operational decisions within the basin, a credible decision support model, operations model, and decision mechanism will need to be developed. This will have to be supported by historic and stochastic hydrologic and meteorologic models and databases that have the acceptance of all players. From these tools, the decision makers can then evaluate the impacts of different scenarios of operation and development on the different sectors and upon the different future alternatives for the basin.

6. The watershed management issues such as erosion control, revegetation, recuperation of the ecological system of the basin and the minimization of pollution through point and non-point source controls, education, modification of irrigation practices, herbicide and pesticide use, industrial waste discharge control, and sewage collection and treatment must all form a part of the basic strategy for the basin. Each of these pieces is a link in the chain that will hold the sustainable management plan for the basin together.

7. In order for such a programme to be developed and to be sustainable over the long term, sustainable mechanisms for funding the management and administration of the programme must be found that will ensure that the programme does not become crippled by political indecision, changes in government or influence by special interests. This challenge alone is formidable.

8. The endeavour to develop a sustainable integrated resource management plan for the Rio São Francisco basin will not be easy and will be evolutionary. It is imperative that such planning be accompanied by realistic expectations as to the timing and practicality of results. It will take a great deal of time, money and strength of purpose. However, the rewards to the economy, culture, and ecology of the basin will be enormous. The creation of a sustainable development and management plan and programme for the natural and social resources of the basin provides an opportunity to improve the well-being of the entire north-east of Brazil as well as that of the entire nation.


1. PLANVASF. 1989. Sintese. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, December.

2. PLANVASF. 1989. Piano Diretor para o Desenvolvimento. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, June.

3. PLANVASF, see n. 1.

4. CODEVASF. 1994. 20 Anos de Sucesso, Ministério da Integracão Regional, Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco, Brasília.

5. PLANVASF, see n. 2.

6. Relatório Final. 1995. Comissão Especial Para o Desenvolvimento do Vale do Rio São Francisco, Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

7. Ibid.

8. CODEVASF. 1994. 20 Anos de Sucesso. Ministério da Integracão Regional, Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do Sao Francisco, Brasília.

9. PLANVASF. 1989. Programa Sectorial de Energia, Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, July.

10. Relatório Final. 1995. Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

11. Relatório Final. 1995. Comissão Especial, Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

12. PLANVASF. 1989. Programa de Desenvolvimento das Areas Indígenas do Vale Do São Francisco. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, December.

13. PLANVASF. 1989. Piano Diretor para Desenvolvimento, Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, June.

14. Ibid.

15. Relatório Final. 1995. Commissão Especial, Senado Federal, Governo Brasílero, Brasília.

16. CODEVASF. 1995. Projeto Amanha. Brasília.

17. Relatório Final. 1995. Comissão Especial, Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Relatório Final. 1995. Comissão Especial, Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

21. DENAEE. 1983. Diagnóstico da Utilizacao dos Recursos Hídricos da Bácia do Rio São Francisco, Ministerio da Minas e Energia, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília, September.

22. Excerpts from the Relatório Final of the Comissão Especial Para o Desenvolvimento do Vale São Francisco, Brasília, 1995. Trans. Ms. Janice Molina, 1996.

23. Ibid.

24. Relatório Final. 1995. Comissao Especial, Senado Federal, Brasília.


CODEVASF. 1994. 20 Anos de Sucesso, Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco. Ministério da Integracao Regional, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

Departamento Nacional da Aguas e Energia Elétrica (DENAEE). 1983. Diagnostico da Utilizacao do Recursos Hidricos da Bacia do Rio Sao Francisco, Relatorio Sintese. Ministério Das Minas e Energia, Brasília, September.

PLANVASF. 1989. Plano Diretor, Sintese. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, December.

PLANVASF. 1989. Programa Setorial de Energia. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, July.

PLANVASF. 1989. Programa para o Desenvolvimento da Irrigacao. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, June.

PLANVASF. 1989. Programa de Desenvolvimento das Areas Indigenas da Regiáo do Vale Do Sao Francisco. Governo Brasileiro-OEA, Brasília, December.

Relatorio Final. 1995. Comissao Especial para o Desenvolvimento do Vale do São Francisco, Senado Federal, Governo Brasileiro, Brasília.

9. Policies for water-resources planning and management of the São Francisco river basin

Paulo A. Romano and E.A. Cadavid Garcia

Basis for a new basin planning model

Since colonial times the São Francisco river has played an important role in the settlement of Brazil, both as the main route followed by our explorers, the bandeirantes, and because of its fundamental importance in communications and transportation between the various regions of the country. It has therefore become known as the "River of National Unity."

The São Francisco valley always occupied the political, economic, socio-cultural, and ecological stage not only of its own region but also of the country. For more than 50 years it has captured the attention of the government either because of its enormous hydroelectric power potential or because of the problems brought about by droughts, floods and, more recently, environmental degradation. But there was never a policy aimed at the harmonious and sustainable development of the São Francisco basin, at integrated and rational management of its natural resources, or at their conservation.

In the past 50 years, since the 1946 Constitution mandated that the Federal Government draw up and implement an overall plan to take full advantage of the economic potential of the São Francisco basin, various actions have been taken in the region. These were mainly executed by the Federal Government, in an effort to initiate and direct its development.

Nevertheless, these interventions were never properly oriented, or sizeable enough to actually lead to development, improve the living conditions of local communities and change the socio-economic profile of the region, despite favourable circumstances, such as the exceptionally good location of the basin, which is surrounded by large consumer centres, and the fact that the São Francisco valley is a major frontier for agricultural expansion.

In general, the interventions have focused on specific sectors rather than on the basin as a whole, have been sporadic in both space and time and have suffered from institutional instability. Inadequate planning, together with management unsuited to the conditions and demands of the region, has perpetuated long-standing social and economic problems and led to the emergence of new ones associated with the environment. Among the problems arising from this sometimes predatory settlement by various economic sectors, mention must be made of the following:

- electric power generation, which has done little for the lands along the banks of the São Francisco, since most existing private irrigation schemes are oil-driven;

- the breakdown of navigation has been interrupted because of lack of maintenance of adequate conditions;

- the negative impact of irrigated agriculture on, among other things, the environment.

Administrative errors in the planning and execution of the various development projects have also had serious consequences, such as:

- badly designed and planned projects that usually took too long to execute, with resulting higher costs;

- troubles caused by political interference;

- legislative errors leading to the fragmentation of financial resources and to the authorization of too many projects at once.

Such an approach would focus on harmonizing the demands for water with the supply existing (potential, prospective, restrictive, opportunities to finance, etc.), by generating human capital (an increase in the ability of society to organize and seek necessary and legitimate changes that are within the carrying capacity of the environment). This could be a new, sustainable model, technically and operationally feasible, that could advantageously replace the old one, permitting the exploitation and the needed protection of natural resources.

The new model would be based on a commitment to defend the interests of the region and on a thorough knowledge of its potential and limitations. Production would be structured around the principles of quality, diversification, and sustainability. The strategy and actions would be based on partnerships, cooperation, decentralization, accountability, and the new paradigms of globalization: competitiveness and the advantages of association and integration. All these principles are recognized and furthered in the coordination of the National Water Resources Policy of the Secretariat for Water Resources (SRH) of the Ministry of Environment, Water Resources and Legal Amazonia (MMA).

Furthermore, the sustainable development of the region would harmonize environmental protection and preservation with economic growth. This is no easy task, since environmental preservation usually inhibits growth.

General description of the São Francisco basin

The São Francisco basin lies between 7° and 21° (latitude south) and is therefore characterized by wide differences in climate, with rainfall ranging from 350 to 1,600 mm and mean temperatures from 18° to 27°C.

The catchment area is 645,067 km2, or about 7.5 per cent of the total area of Brazil. Geographically 61.8 per cent, or 389,900 km2, is in the north-eastern region; 37.5 per cent, or 237,045 km2, in the south-eastern region; and the remaining 0.7 per cent, or 4,188 km2, in the centre-west (the State of Goiás and the Federal District). While 300,263 km2 of the basin is in the State of Bahia - 47.6 per cent of the total São Francisco basin or 77 per cent of the total north-eastern basin area - only 14 per cent is in the States of Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe (figure 1).

The São Francisco valley is a distinct region within the north-east, more than half of it (56 per cent) in the extremely arid Drought Polygon. It is divided into four physiographic regions, whose characteristics are shown in table 1 and figure 1. The climatic characteristics of the basin are determined by several factors. The topography, which has a very marked effect on the distribution of mean temperatures; they are highest over the river itself and drop on both banks as the altitude rises.

The upper basin, from the headwaters of the São Francisco to Pirapora, with altitudes ranging from 600 to 1,600 m, has a humid and sub-humid climate. Summers are rainy and winters are dry; the mean annual rainfall ranges from 1,200 to 1,500 mm, and the average temperature is around 23°C.

Fig. 1: Physiographic regions in the São Francisco river basin (Primary information obtained from CODEVASF, 1994)


1 - Upper São Francisco. From the headwaters in the municipality of São Roque, Serra da Canastra, State of Minas Gerais (MG), to the city of Pirapora (MG), the river crosses over highly irregular terrain, with altitudes of up to 1,600 meters above sea level (600 to 1.600 m). Slopes vary from 0-2 to 0.7 m/km; average evaporation is 2,300 mm; relative humidity, 76%; and luminosity, 2.400 hours. Rainfall occurs during a few months of the year and totals 1,200 to 1,900 mm/year. The region is covered by forests and cerrado vegetation and the climate is tropical humid, with a mean temperature of 23°C. The region includes the most densely populated areas in Minas Gerais, which an located in the sub-basins of me Rio das Velhas, Pará, Indaiá, Abaeté, and Jequitaí.

2 - Mid São Francisco. From the cities of Pirapora (MG) and Remanso, State of Bahia (BA), altitudes vary from 500 (m me plains) to 1.000 meters above sea level. The region features great variations in attitude and, therefore, has great hydroelectric potential. Average gradients vary from 0.2 to 0-1 m/km. Mean evaporation is 2,900 mm; relative humidity, 60%, and luminosity, 3,300 hours. Rainfall varies from 400 to 1,600 mm. The region is covered by cerrado-caatinga vegetation and the climate is tropical semi-arid. This reach includes the sub-basins of the Pillão Arcado, Jacaré, Paracatu, Carinhanha, Correntes, Grande, Verde Grande, and Paramirim affluents.

3 - Mid-Lower São Francisco. This reach is located between the cities of Remanso and Paulo Afonso, both in the State of Bahia, and includes areas in me states of Bahia and Pernambuco. Altitudes vary from 200 to 500 infers, with gradients from 0.10 to 0.3 m/km. Average evaporation is 3,000 mm; relative humidity, 60%; and luminosity, 2,700 hours. Annual rainfall varies from 350 to 800 mm. The region is covered by caatinga vegetation and the climate is tropical semi-arid. This reach includes me sub-basins of the Pajeú, Tourão, Vargem, and Moxotó rivers.

4 - Lower São Francisco. From the city of Paulo Afonso to the mouth of the river, which separates the slates of Alagoas and Sergipe, the reach runs over hilly country, with altitudes of up to 200 meters above sea level, and a coastal plain also featuring irregular terrain. Average evaporation is 2,300 mm and annual rainfall varies from 500 to 1,200 mm Caatinga and woodland vegetation cover the region. The climate is tropical semi-arid.

Along the 2,700 km of river course, die difference in altitude is 1,000 meters, unevenly distributed along the seven states the river runs through, with a variable influence on me environment.

Table 1: Physical characteristics of the São Francisco river valley


Upper (Canastra-Pirapora)

Mid (Pirapora-Sobradinho)

Mid-lower (Sobradinho-P.Afonso)

Lower (P.Afonso-O-Atlântica)






Wind (m/s)





Humidity (%)





Luminosity (h)





Cloudiness (0 to 10)





Evaporation (mm)





Rainfall (mm)

1,900 a 1,200

1,600 a 400

600 a 350

1,200 a 500

Rainy season

Nov. to April

Nov. to April

Nov. to April

March to Sept.


Forest and cerrado

Cerrado and caatinga


Caatinga and woodland


Tropical humid

Tropical semi-arid

Tropical semi-arid

Tropical semi-arid

Gradient (m/km)

0.70 to 0.20

0.20 to 0.10

0.10 to 0.30

3.10 to 0.10

CODEVASF (1989), supplemented by data from Portobrás, cited by Araújo.

The middle basin, from Pirapora to Remanso, with altitudes from 400 to 1,000 m, has a sub-humid and semi-arid climate, with summer rains. The mean annual rainfall is 600-800 mm on the eastern plateau and 1,400 mm on the westernmost edge, along the Serra Geral de Goiás. The mean annual temperature is 24°C.

The lower-middle basin, from Remanso to Paulo Afonso, with altitudes from 300 to 400 m, has an arid and semi-arid climate, with very irregular rainfall patterns and total rainfall ranging from 350 to 800 mm, depending on the altitude. The mean annual temperature is 26.5°C.

The lower basin, from Paulo Afonso to the mouth, with altitudes from 0 to 300 m, is semi-arid in the hinterland and sub-humid to humid as it approaches the mouth.

Distinct air masses moving north-east to south-west in the spring and east to west in winter and autumn. Clouds are rare, and therefore solar radiation is high.

As a result of the high mean annual temperatures, the inter-tropical geographical location, and the lack of cloud cover throughout most of the year, potential evapotranspiration is very high, varying with the temperature. The rates are highest (2,140 mm) in the sub-humid part of the basin and drop to 1,300 mm in the higher zones at the northern end.

The São Francisco has 36 tributaries, 19 of which are perennial rivers. The mean annual discharge into the Atlantic ocean is 90 billion m3/sec of water drained from the extensive and distinct catchment regions in the basin (table 2).

The irregular distribution of the available surface water results from various factors, such as extreme variability of rainfall along time and space; severe climatic conditions in the semi-arid regions, where evaporation is very intense throughout the year; and geomorphologic elements, particularly the imperviousness of crystalline soils, which, together with the type of vegetation, intensify runoff.

The great diversity of geological formations, topographic conditions, and climatic interference results in a great variety of soils, which in turn produces three main types of vegetation, forming three district zones:

- In the upper and middle São Francisco latosols and podsols, suitable for agriculture, predominate. There are also quartzitic sands. In the mountainous areas, intermediate soils and lithosols are also frequent and associated with cerrado-like vegetation. Caatinga vegetation is found where rainfall is at its lowest.

- In the lower-middle São Francisco non-calcic brown soils, regosols, lithosols, quartzitic sands, planosols, vertisols, intermediate soils, and solodized solonetz soils predominate. This area has the basin with the least farming potential and the smallest possibility of irrigation.

- In the lower São Francisco podsols, latosols, lithosols, quartzitic sands, and hydromorphic soils predominate. The potential for irrigated agriculture depends on the topography and drainage.

Table 2: Main characteristics of the catchment basin of the Rio São Francisco basin


Seasons Catchment Areas (km2)a

Mean annual discharge (m3/s)
Specific yields (l/s/km2)

São Francisco (downstream)

Três Marias and Pirapora

707 and 768

49,750 and 61,880

14.21 and 12.41

Barra do Jequitaí and Cach. Manteira

1,015 and 1,132

90,990 and 107,070

11.16 and 10.57

São Romão and São Francisco

1,520 and 2,082

153,702 and 182,537

9.89 and 11.41

Januaria and Manga

2,168 and 2,050

191,700 and 200,789

11.31 and 10.21

Carinhanha and Morpará

2,207 and 2,421

251,209 and 344,800

8.79 and 7.02

Barra and Juazeiro

2,652 and 2,731

421,400 and 510,800

6.29 and 5.35

Pão de Acucar and Traipu

2,847 and 2,980

608,900 and 622,600

4.68 and 4.79

Left bank:

Porto Alegre and Barra do Escuro

436 and 251

Paracatu and Urucuia

41.09 and 24,658

10.45 and 10.18

Carinhanha and Corrente

Junenília and Porto Novo

150 and 251

15.32 and 31,120

9.47 and 8.07






Right bank:

Paraopeba and Das Velas

Porto Mesquita and Várzea da Palma

140 and 292

10,300 and 25,940

13.59 and 11.26

Jequitai and Verde Grande

Jequitai and Boca da Caatinga

46 and 19

6,811 and 30,174

6.75 and 0.63

a. Depending on season.
DNAEE (1989). CODEVASF (ed.).

Salinization of the soils can occur where rainfall is low and the water table is close to the surface. It is estimated that 20-30 per cent of irrigated areas in the arid regions of the basin require underground drainage to maintain their productivity.

Table 3: Suitability of soils for irrigated agriculture in the Rio São Francisco basin (1,000 ha)


Appropriate Soils (A) (A/B, %)

Soils under study

Inappropriate soils

Total (B)

Minas Gerais

10,534 (41.6)





17,592 (54.0)





1,630 (22.7)





405 (24.8)





150 (18.5)





30,311 (44.9)




CODEVASF (1994).

Tillable soils far exceed the availability of water. Any programme contemplating the farming of 1.8 million hectares must be part of an integrated water resources development plan, to prevent conflicts among the various sectors (table 3).

As for vegetation (CODEVASF, 1994), about 7.3 per cent of the basins is covered by dense or open forests (north-western Minas Gerais) or seasonal semi-deciduous and deciduous forests (western Bahia). Open fields covered by cerrado or caatinga vegetation account for 34 per cent and 21 per cent of the basin, respectively. Other areas consist of ecological/preservation sanctuaries (1 per cent) and reforestation projects (0.9 per cent).

According to 1996 data, the São Francisco valley contains 463 municipalities, of which 82.5 per cent are entirely within the São Francisco basin and 50.1 per cent within both the basin and the Drought Polygon. The 1991 IBGE population census shows 23.8 million people living in the 645,300 km2 region, at a density of 37.5 inhabitants/km2, or 53.8 per cent of the total population of the seven states comprising the basin.

In the 1960s, 4.1 million people migrated from rural to urban areas, 42 per cent of whom settled in cities. In the 1970s, another 4.7 million people migrated, 63 per cent of them to urban centres. This reveals the low and continuously decreasing retention capacity of rural areas in the north-east compared with the negative growth of its population: from 28 per cent in the 1960s to 16 per cent in the 1970s to negative growth rates in the 1980s. Population growth will continue to decrease in the future and will stabilize at 1 per cent in the 2010-2020 decade, when the population is estimated to be 60.6 million. Other demographic, social, and economic indicators point to the de-concentration of the urban poles of attraction, lower mortality, higher income and employment rates, and an improvement in the region's infrastructure, water supply, and basic sanitation services. The effect will be heavy pressure on water resources to be distributed among alternative user groups, competing sectors, and strategic sub-regions. Thus, conservation measures are needed to set priorities for the use of water and ensure its integrated management on the basis of the environmental capacity.

Table 4: Evolution and trend in area irrigated, 1960-1994 (1,000 ha)





Until 1960




Until 1970




Until 1975




Until 1980




Until 1985




Until 1990




Until 1994




Lineal trenda




a. Estimated.
CODEVASF (1995).

Irrigated farming has been encouraged by a series of governments, which have provided transportation, energy, and water infrastructure and built large irrigation projects (1950/60). Table 4 shows the estimated trends in the expansion of irrigation, which rose sharply beginning in the 1980s, probably as a result of the Northeast Irrigation Program (PROINE), which was executed in 1985/86. On average, the estimated growth of the irrigated area in the São Francisco basin was 8,500 hectares a year during that period.

Among the complex economic aspects of agriculture in the basin that need to be considered in planning and managing its water resources are the costs and benefits of the irrigated areas. In the São Francisco basin, it is estimated that an irrigated hectare costs from US$11,200 to US$8,900, which is high compared with other countries.

According to the 1985 IBGE agricultural census, there were 752,150 farms in the region, covering 40.6 million hectares. The growth of agriculture has taken place without an adequate or timely increase in support services. This has had an adverse impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the region's agricultural sector.

There are also problems with research and development, mainly due to lack of credit and financing for farmers, of adequate and sufficient knowledge and technologies to bring about change, and of rural technical assistance despite the significant results achieved in certain sectors by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Enterprise (EMBRAPA) and the state research and rural extension enterprises, the universities, CHESF and CODEVASF.


The pattern of settlement, the structure and organization of production and its goods and services, and the way enterprises in the basin are run have caused a variety of problems, creating increasingly serious threats to the environment and society, and have led to conflicts among water users. An increasing number of private and governmental activities have aimed at specific sectoral and regional objectives, often conflicting and injuring to the environment and local communities.

Power generation, water impoundment for industrial and domestic use, fishing, navigation, and irrigation are examples of sectoral water uses that have not been adequately coordinated in the São Francisco basin. Land resources, such as minerals, soils and vegetation, have been exploited without due consideration of modern proper planning and management principles.

Power generation has been the main commercial use of water in the São Francisco basin. Paradoxically, however, the communities along the banks are not adequately served by electricity. In fact, hydroelectric power provides only 10 per cent of the energy used in the private irrigated areas in the middle region of São Francisco (1,917 hectares); the rest is diesel. Furthermore, irrigation has not been adequately promoted: only one in every four irrigated hectares was a government initiative. The private initiatives have not had sufficient access to credit and other necessities.

River transport has a long history on the São Francisco, but now, at a time when the region has become a major source of grain and other agricultural products, it no longer exists because of a lack of incentives to the private sector and because of the 1,312 km of precarious navigation along the main reaches - from Pirapora (MG) to Juazeiro (BA)/Petrolina (PE), and the 2,008 km from Piranhas (AL) to the mouth.

Inadequately planned projects have caused serious silting at the mouth of the mouth. Formerly, deposits accumulated during the months of lower flow were sent to the sea during the flood months. In a 1943 report to DNPVN, Furtado Portugal stressed the need for a comprehensive rather than partial approach to the large hydroelectric and irrigation works being planned for the middle and lower São Francisco. Otherwise, he warned the government, serious problems could be expected downstream. But the works were executed without meeting the requirements set out in that report and the water quality suffered, causing negative impacts on the environment and serious problems in the outfall and estuary.

The Belo Horizonte metropolitan region is the largest and most densely populated area in the upper São Francisco basin. Some of the environmental effects of the primary, secondary, and tertiary economic activities in and around Belo Horizonte are irreversible. According to CETEC/MG laboratory results, the water of the Rio das Velhas reach, downstream from the Belo Horizonte metropolitan region, for example, has a high content of sulfate, chloride, sodium, and potassium, high concentrations of faecal coliforms and total solids, and high turbidity.

Progressive clearing of the native vegetation for farming and for making charcoal for steel mills and brick and stoneware works has also generated particularly serious negative impacts on the upper São Francisco environment. Soil loss alone is estimated at 0.17 mm/year (table 6).

In the Bahia area of the basin, the principal problems are associated with large dams, deforestation for cattle ranching, and the dumping of raw sewage into the river. In the State of Pernambuco, desertification is a serious problem, specially in the caatinga, considerably worsened by deforestation and intensive and inadequate soil management.

In the State of Alagoas most of the problems occur in the area originally covered by the Atlantic rainforest, 95 per cent of which has already been destroyed. This region is the most densely populated and has the most primary and secondary economic activities. Large distilleries, the burning of sugar-cane fields, and the use of pesticides pose a most serious threat. In the tropical semi-arid hinterland, the clearing of native vegetation has led to soil erosion and desertification. In the State of Sergipe, the problems of the basin are related to the sewage disposal in most municipalities and the resulting effect on public health.

Table 5: Sediment production, mean annual soil degradation, and other information recorded at the sediment stations on the Rio São Francisco basin

River, station, and period

Catchment area (km2)

Net discharge (m3/s)

Mean annual sediment production (t/km2/year)

Mean annual soil degradation (mm/year)

São Francisco






Oct. 1972-Dec. 1985






Porto Pará

July 1960-Jun. 1961






Belo Vale

Sept. 1972-Dec. 1981






Porto Indaiá

Oct. 1977-Aug. 1985

São Francisco





Pirapora at Barreiro

Dec. 1975-Nov. 1982

Das Velhas





Jequitibá (Raul Soare Bridge)





Dec. 1975-Nov. 1982

Das Velhas





Honório Bicalho

Mar. 1975-Dec. 1982






Santa Rosa (Port Alegre)





Apr. 1976-Nov. 1982 (1966/74)

São Francisco





São Romão (Pedras da Maria da C.)





Dec. 1968-Mar. 1975 (1972/75)

Rio Correntes





Santa Maria da V (Porto Novo)





May 1967-Apr. 1975 (1972/75)

Rio São Francisco





Gameleira (Morpará)





Rio São Francisco





Apr. 1972-Feb. 1975 (1978/84)

Pilão Arcad (Juazeiro)





Dec. 1968-Dec. 1973 (1967/75)

Rio São Francisco





Petrolândia (Traipu)





Aug. 1980-Dec. 1984 (1968/74)

Adapted from Carvalho (1994, pp. 245-247, simplified).

Table 6: Rio São Francisco reaches and water quality




From headwaters to confluence with Ribeirão das Capivaras


Domestic supply with little or no treatment; preservation of the natural balance of aquatic communities

From confluence with Ribeirão das Capivaras to confluence with Rio Mombaça


Domestic supply after simplified treatment; protection of aquatic communities; primary contact recreational activities; irrigation of garden vegetables consumed raw and fruits growing close to the ground; natural and intensive breeding (aquaculture) of species for human consumption

From confluence with Rio Mombaça to mouth


Domestic supply after conventional treatment; protection of aquatic communities; primary contact recreational activities; irrigation of garden vegetables and fruit trees; natural and intensive breeding (aquaculture) of species for human consumption

Souza and Motta (1994).

According to Administrative Ordinance No. 715/89-P, dated 20 September 1989, issued by the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which defined the federal streams in the basins, almost 10 years ago the São Francisco showed the results presented in table 5. The ordinance also specified problems demanding immediate solution before the river water could be used for domestic consumption in the middle lower and lower São Francisco.

Water should be considered an economic good. Obtaining it in adequate quantity and quality, under spatial and temporal restraints, to supply all types of uses and users, now and in the future, is subjected to increasing cost pressures. Yet there is still lacking the information needed to make water's economic, social, and ecological importance known and to foster public awareness of its market value, with a view to enforcing appropriate integrated conservation and management.

Table 7: Extreme poverty rates in the municipalities of the São Francisco basin (by state)


40-50% families in extreme poverty

More than 50% families in extreme poverty

No. municipalities


No. municipalities


Minas Gerais

























Peliano (1993), quoted by Araújo (1996).

In the Drought Polygon particularly, potable water is a scarce and vulnerable natural resource. In the large cities of the north-east, by contrast, 30-40 per cent of treated water is wasted, mainly because of a "culture of abundance." Thus, potential and even actual conflicts can be estimated on the basis of the vulnerability indicators of most temporary streams and even of some reaches of the São Francisco.

Water supply and basic sanitation are precarious and the riverside population is frequently affected by water-borne diseases. The lack of adequate and timely health care in the São Francisco basin is a frequently mentioned cause of migration to the cities (table 7).

The fishery potential of the São Francisco is still considerable, though under serious threat. Growing and uncontrolled exploitation by more than 41,000 artisanal fishermen, together with inadequate management of fisheries and large interventions (dam construction, clearing of gallery forests, industrial and domestic pollution, the effect of pesticides and mining operations, etc.), have caused changes in the composition and behaviour of the fish populations, especially of migratory species. These changes are translated into low productivity and a threat of extinction of some species as habitats are destroyed.

Per capita electric power consumption is very low among the local populations, as a result of deficient supply and low family incomes. This contrasts with the great hydroelectric potential of the Rio São Francisco, which is estimated at 10,379.2 MW/year, of which only 5,840 MW/year are in production or under construction.


The water resources planning and management policy should be harmonized with, integrated into, and synergistically complemented by a sustainable development model. Such integration should begin with the regional plans, the 1996-1999 National Development Plan, and the National Water Resources Policy, whose implementation should include clearly defined objectives, actions, project, goals, and strategies. Some of these objectives will focus on:

- creating the necessary legal, institutional and technical conditions to harmonize multiple water uses, considering the economic, social, and ecological conditions in each region of the country and increasing water scarcity. This overall objective requires the design and implementation of a new water management model. In this line of action, the goals proposed for 1996-1999 are the following:

· to draw up five plans for the integration of the São Francisco basins with other basins;
· to adopt a management system for groundwater sources;
· to create a national register of water users;
· to train human resources;
· to promote three educational campaigns; and
· to increase and maintain the hydro-meteorologic network;

- increasing the drinking water supply for rural populations, on the basis of an integrated and sustainable utilization of the water potential that respects local conditions and limitations, particularly in the semi-arid region, with actions and projects such as the strengthening of the water infrastructure in the north-east (Prohidro); building community cisterns, shallow wells, underground dams and pools; and drilling, installing, and recuperating deep wells;

- fostering regional and sectoral investments that value the labour force by acknowledging its potential;

- organizing and negotiating training activities (development of human capital) and decentralization, on the basis of information about the various scenarios and conditioning factors of such development.

The topic of water resources would thus be treated within broad, integrated, harmonious, and balanced contexts that include all sectoral projects, issues, objectives, and actions, such as basic sanitation, agriculture, education, transportation, energy, and particularly social matters.

The water-resources policy for the basin sets out a number of objectives, which are considered in a document entitled "Compromisso pela Vida do São Francisco" (Commitment to the Life of the São Francisco). These objectives are also found in planning and management policy. Special mention should be made of the following:

- to define an institutionalized, integrated management model for the São Francisco basin involving the active (according to the responsibilities of each stakeholder) and timely (according to the demands and possibilities of each stakeholder) participation of the federal, state, and municipal governments;

- to identify the problems that affect the river and its tributaries by means of joint action by the various spheres of government, the public and private sectors, and civil society, in an integrated and complementary manner;

- to develop jointly a master plan for the basin and its tributaries that contemplates its integration with basins in other regions;

- to ensure continuity to studies on the diversion of the São Francisco, based on sustainability and on multiple uses and users.

The various proposals and commitments made by Brazil at international meetings, particularly at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), constitute the framework for establishing the objectives of the water-resources planning and management policy.

Institutional and legal framework and development problems in the São Francisco basin

The National Water Resources Management System was established by Law 9.433, which was approved on 7 January 1997. The law stipulates the development of a National Water Resources Management Plan and the creation of River Basin Committees in order to decentralize the actions taken.

Since 1945 the São Francisco valley has received special attention from the Federal Government aimed at making use of its natural resources: first its hydroelectric potential and later soils and water for agricultural development through irrigation. For this the Federal Government created various agencies and programmes, including the following:

- the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company (CHESF), in October 1945;

- the São Francisco Valley Commission (CVSF), in December 1948, to regularize river flows, develop the hydroelectric potential, and develop agriculture, irrigation, and industry, among other activities;

- The Superintendency for Development of the Northeast (SUDENE), in December 1959;

- the Superintendency of the São Francisco Valley (SUVALE), an agency of the Ministry of Interior, in February 1967. SUVALE developed master plans, feasibility studies, and executive projects according to the standards of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. It lacked the autonomy accorded to the CVSF and after seven years was incorporated into:

- the São Francisco Valley Development Corporation (CODEVASF). This was established in July 1974, in response to the Federal Government's need for an institution in the basin that could quickly and efficiently execute the activities of a regional development agency and serve as a link between actions of the government and of the private sector. One of the driving forces in the development of the region was irrigation, which was seen as a multi-sectoral undertaking that would help build a sustainable economy.

To evaluate existing basin development agencies (or create new ones), the government established several committees (some now defunct), among them the following:

- The Interministerial Commission for Studies on Flood Control for the São Francisco River, created in June 1979, under the coordination of DNOS and with representatives of CODEVASF, the regional agencies involved, and the Governments of Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe.

- The Committee for Integrated Studies of the São Francisco River Basin (CEEIVASF), established in October 1979. In 1984 CEEIVASF set up a basin committee system, a planning system that uses river basins as planning, covers a limited number of sectoral or governmental functions, operates on a technical basis and handles almost no funds, with little legal definition, separate from the federal and state planning systems.

- The Interparliamentary Commission for the Development of the São Francisco (CIPE-São Francisco), made up of the Chairmen of the State Assemblies of Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas, and Sergipe, which coordinates the actions of the five assemblies in the basin.

- The Union of Prefectures of the São Francisco Valley (Univale), a joint effort of the mayors of the municipalities in the basin, with vice-chairmen for energy, irrigation, sanitation and housing, tourism and leisure, navigation, education and culture, and environmental preservation.

- The Manoel Novaes Institute for the Development of the São Francisco Basin, which pursues environmental, economic, and social strategies to protect the river and promote the development of its basin. The Institute was created by the Bahia Trade Association, the Agriculture Federation of Bahia, the Federal University of Bahia, State University of Bahia, and CEEIVASF.

- The Special Commission for the Development of the São Francisco Valley, created by the Federal Senate in Requirement No. 480/1995 to promote wide-ranging discussion of policies, programmes, strategies, and priorities for the development of the basin. Its purposes were: to analyse proposals and projects concerned with the socio-economic and environmental balance of the basin; to analyse proposals and select appropriate means of managing and reclaiming degraded environments; to serve as a forum for discussion of the economic potential of the basin for the north-east, and consider possible public and private investments; and, to discuss and choose new projects for the region, with special emphasis on sustainable development.

Mention must be also made of the Project on the Master Plan for the Development of the São Francisco Valley (PLANVASF), which was drafted with the support of the Organization of American States (OAS) and first proposed in 1989, to guide and coordinate governmental actions and encourage private-sector activities. The plan laid out development actions to be executed and encouraged, aiming at the integrated use of natural resources. Priority should be given to increasing the production of food and raw material through irrigated agriculture and making full use of the region's electric power potential; flood prevention and control; the development of a transportation infrastructure, with emphasis on river navigation; and basic sanitation and environmental monitoring and preservation.

All government intervention efforts in the basin clearly indicate the need for integrated, long-term strategies and actions, based on sound observation and implemented according to a master plan.

Planning and management

At present the water sector is segmented in water uses and users. Actions very seldom converge and are frequently isolated, with no effective coordination following real operational principles or guidelines that aim at the sustainable utilization of the basin's natural resources. The region urgently needs integrated planning and common strategies. Some of them should be directed toward eliminating obstacles to sustainable and more equitable growth in the basin; consolidating an economy that would be more competitive, more responsive to international market stimuli and demands; and improving the efficiency of the economic system with attention to environmental quality.

Federal policies have traditionally favoured water supply to the detriment of a more rational water use that would enable the government to meet broader social objectives. Among the goals relating to water resources, particularly in the semi-arid areas of the north-east, special emphasis is being given to developing innovative and participative policies, such as those being defined and implemented by PRO-ÁGUA, a programme to be executed by the Secretariat for Water Resources. Priority is being assigned to the completion of irrigation and water infrastructure works. Investments in water structure - dams, ponds, and canals - totalling R$3.5bn will increase the water storage capacity by 11.2 billion m3. The irrigation works, covering 970,000 hectares, and the modernization of water management will require an additional R$100m. Basin committees will be established and master plans for the basins drawn up.

The water-resources policy is designed at the central level, within the new, modern government model which will be implemented at local, regional, state, and national levels, and even internationally, in the case of basins involving two or more countries.


The existing models of growth and plans for the basin are beginning to prove unsustainable and show clear signs of damaging and increasing the vulnerability of natural systems. To reverse this trend, a change is needed in the attitudes of the population and government towards the progressive depletion and erosion of natural resources, since it has become evident that the ecosystems cannot heal themselves. A major source of pressure on water resources is the competition among power generation, irrigation, and domestic water supply.

Of the many complex environmental problems, only two will be mentioned here:

- the recovery and preservation of the quality status of river basins to permit the restoration of habitat, the replenishment of fisheries, and the resumption of commercial fishing, by means of sound planning and management instruments; and

- the protection of natural resources and environments, such as soils and biota, that are fast being degraded by erosion that significantly reduces the capacity of farmland and deposits sediment in rivers, where it is carried along and damages the river channel and water works equipment and diminishes the useful life of reservoirs.

Quality control and monitoring programmes are essential for ensuring water supply for human and animal consumption. Preventive measures and educational projects have proved economically sound. Water-resources planning and management action aiming at the prevention and control of water pollution from agricultural activities; the reclamation of degraded areas; the preservation and improvement of the health status of the population; and the resettlement of native populations in certain areas of the basin, among others, are essentials.

In these areas, the planning strategies aim at defining inter-agency strategies and partnerships to carry out joint activities in several time frames. In the short term:

- zoning and land use-planning studies for critical areas, in support of mitigation actions to reverse soil erosion and conserve biodiversity;

- a variety of studies to define and describe sustainable scenarios for the use and management of soils and other land resources that are under heavy human pressure;

- the setting of systematic evaluation of critical areas and other places that are subject to limitations or exposed to environmental degradation, on the basis of technical characteristics such as propensity to erosion.

In the medium and long term:

- designing and implementing reforestation programmes for the preservation areas to be reclaimed;

- identifying and implementing reclamation and protection projects for the reclamation of degraded areas;

- identifying and implementing environmental education programmes.

Sanitation and health

The following guidelines should be used in designing the basic sanitation policy for the basin:

- participation by the various local, regional, and state agents involved in the planning and management of basic sanitation services in the basin;

- relative flexibility in the provision of services, to cope with the great diversity of geographical, social, and economic situations with due respect for the local and regional characteristics, potentials and possibilities;

- the integration of actions and strategies in the sanitation sector, and their integration with those of other, related sectors and policies: water resources, irrigation, health, urban development, income/jobs, environment, etc.

- the opening of the sector to private initiative, thus combining the existing planning and management capability with the possibility of new funding; and

- the strengthening of the regulatory function of the Federal Government, and of the executing, control, and monitoring functions of the municipal governments.


Despite the high hydroelectric potential of the basin, studies have shown that the low-income population and some economic sectors, such as irrigated agriculture, are inadequately supplied. Besides, in some cases, regional sources of hydropower have been depleted.

To make full use of the hydroelectric potential of the region while dealing with the problems of water resources and environmental quality, some management measures must be planned, effective participation of the communities and appropriate consideration of the technical and scientific principles that will ensure economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Among these measures are the following:

- building the hydraulic infrastructure to capture, regularize, and distribute water and generate electric power in the São Francisco basin and other adjacent basins, in order to meet local and regional needs;

- generating power from alternative sources to supply irrigation schemes.


The São Francisco waterway should be revitalized. Investments estimated at R$25m are designed to improve navigability between Pirapora and Juazeiro and include dredging and installing signals in some sections, such as the Sobradinho lake and the stretch between Barra and Pirapora.

Technical and economic feasibility studies should also be proposed with a view to improving navigability in some specific reaches, such as those in Rio Grande (350 km), to attract cargoes from the Barreiras region, and downstream from Petrolina, which would permit full intermodal integration of the trans-northeastern railway that ends at the Port of Suape. These improvements would significantly reduce transportation costs. Other feasibility studies are planned for the intermodal Pirapora-Unaí-Malha Centro waterway-railway connection, which offers solid prospects for development in those areas.

Agriculture and irrigation

Brazilian water policy has been centred on and directed towards physical projects, some of them questionable and many unfinished and unable to meet the construction schedule or the established goals, lacking in proper planning and no integrated, efficient resource management.

Some of the objectives of the new agricultural irrigation and drainage model are intended to support and establish technical and administrative guidelines for assessing the needs and the social, economic, and environmental (with the minimum and tolerable risk) advantages of achieving sustainable water management. SRH/MMA is preparing to perform its mission of coordinating and providing guidance to its partners in the establishment of strategies that will encourage farmers and agro-industry to use irrigation schemes that obey economic, market, and environmental sustainability criteria; establishing environmental standards and indicators of water use for irrigation purposes; and assisting, encouraging, and providing incentives for participative planning and management of irrigation schemes.

The results expected from the new model include new techniques and technologies for water tapping, use, and management in irrigated areas; the growing of quality products; agro-industry linked to primary production; marketing; other agricultural development instruments such as lines of credit, technical support to farmers, etc. These results are consistent with the planning done in sectors such as transportation, education and training, energy, research and development, science and technology, and social organization, among other proposals for the development of the São Francisco basin and its area of influence.


In this sector, the diagnosis points to serious, widespread deficiencies in the educational infrastructure; in the composition, qualifications, and numbers of teaching staff; and particularly in the results achieved by the students. Losses due to school repetition and dropping out in the north-east have reached levels that are intolerable in a development context. Environmental education and vocational training are two important avenues for the development of the human capital required for the sustainable development of the basin and its area of influence.

Many activities in other development sectors, such as technology generation and dissemination, the development of agriculture and crafts, the conservation of the cultural heritage, education for basic sanitation, and the development of tourism, among others, are directly associated with education and with an awareness of the need for and advantages of "clean," sustainable processes, products, and services.

Research and development, science and technology

When these activities are properly oriented to avoid the "second generation" negative effects of modern but inadequate technologies on the environment, they permeate, influence, and drive all the sectors of development with special emphasis on education and human capital formation. The advantages of the economy and of modernity are firmly anchored in the results of these activities.

Water-resources planning and management policy should profit from the actions and strategies contemplated in the legislation establishing the National Water Resources Policy and in the Pluriannual Program of the Federal Government, which in the science and technology areas propose, among other things:

- Revising the structure of fiscal incentives that supports research and development, approving incentives for projects, and encouraging foreign risk capital in these activities;

- Strengthening the infrastructure and consolidating existing centres of excellence and human resources (social capital) for research and development and establishing technology centres to disseminate modern practices and increase technology transfers; and

- Providing direct support to private-sector research and to the processes of innovation in small and medium-sized companies and encouraging interactions between the private sector and the universities. Part of this effort should be aimed at adapting policies on environmental impact to criteria based on research and development and at the integrated conservation and management of natural resources in the basin and its area of influence.

Social organization

Among the priority sectors included in the planning is social for decentralization and for the setting up of partnerships and schemes of shared responsibility.

The Solidarity Community Program is in charge of the main federal actions in the social area, in coordination with the pertinent ministries. It works from a municipal approach, along two lines:

- one emphasizing food supplementation for low-income populations, which in 1994 served 150 municipalities in the basin;

- one focusing on projects in food, housing, job generation, health, and education, which in 1994 served 17 municipalities known as "pockets of property."

It must be noted that the water-resources planning and management policy includes the creation of sub-basin councils, committees and agencies, for which SRH/MMA is preparing to provide guidance and stimuli.


The establishment and execution of integrated programmes stipulated in the Rio São Francisco basin planning and management policies should stress the need and importance of joint, decentralized, participative actions to be implemented through proposals for inter-institutional, interdisciplinary cooperation. This process involves the negotiation of integrated planning and management.

Discussion of the paradigms for the new development model that serve as reference for the water resources planning and management activities in the basin has made clear the need for more effective participation by communities organized to assume a commitment to decentralization, to engage in partnerships and to change their behaviour and attitudes, and aware of the need for cooperation/integration of the public and private sectors, in all areas and at all levels of government.

At the macro level and in the institutional administrative sphere, the recommendations are directed towards the following:

- the creation and maintenance of an up-to-date basin information system;

- a reorganization of the planning, budgeting, and internal control systems at the various levels of government;

- the restructuring and adaptation of the integrated administration and financial system, to draw it into the formulation of the federal and state budgets and enable it to be used as a tool for planning, management, control, and evaluation; and

- establishing technical, scientific, and operational mechanisms to analyse the technical and budgetary implications of proposals, integrated into the timetables for projects, and to monitor and evaluate the execution of the projects, to reduce the number started and left unfinished.

The Basin Master Plan should be consonant with the instruments, guidelines, and principles of the sectoral planning policies that form the Natural Master Plan and Natural Resources Plan and those of the states in the São Francisco basin. It should provide for institutional strengthening and sufficient funding to carry out decentralization and planning activities, and execution of proposals for action at the various levels of government.


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10. Addressing global environment issues through a comprehensive approach to water-resources management: Perspectives from the São Francisco and Plata basins

Alfred M. Duda


Twenty-five years after the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment the world still faces a wide variety of critical environmental threats that have global implications: degradation of soils, water, and marine resources essential to increased food production; widespread health-threatening air and water pollution; global warming that could disrupt weather patterns, cause floods or droughts, and raise sea levels everywhere; loss of habitats, species, and genetic resources, damaging ecosystems and the services they provide. Five years after world leaders renewed their pledge at the Earth Summit in Rio to comprehensively address these issues, environmental conditions remain about the same in the North as well as the South despite greater understanding of the gravity of the situation. Wasteful patterns of overconsumption continue in many countries of the North and rapid population growth and natural resource depletion continue in many countries of the South.

It is a time of unprecedented global change. Human activities are now a major factor in overriding natural changes in species, land cover, and ecosystems that are brought about by climate variations over thousands of years. Fuelled by the triple pressures of over-consumption, globalization of trade, and population growth, various uses of the earth's surface (agriculture, forestry) have altered the land cover of large regions and endangered plant and animal habitat. Fire, grazing, and tillage bare the earth, erode the soil, deplete the land, and degrade freshwater and marine systems to the point that regional hydrologic and geochemical cycles are disrupted. Non-indigenous species introduced by humans crowd out natural species; industrial pollutants fill the skies and waters with poisonous substances, and greenhouse gases as well as ozone-depleting substances change our atmosphere and climate. We are overfishing the oceans and converting coastal wetlands to diked agricultural uses which further reduce ocean fish stocks.

In the 1970s, these problems seemed local in extent. By the 1980s, research demonstrated expansion of the problems to cover entire multi-country regions. By our decade of the 1990s, there is no question that these issues are global in significance and ultimately have adverse implications for the health of the global environment. For the first time in our planet's history, mankind is accelerating global changes to the point that economic systems may collapse, human survival becomes much more expensive, and sustainability of the world's environment - our life support system - is placed in jeopardy. What can be done about it?

This paper outlines the importance of global environment threats and global pressures that are becoming significant to mankind. It is not only rapid population growth and overconsumption that create these pressures but also globalization of trade, world markets, agricultural subsidies, multinational private sector investment, and international finance institutions contribute to these environmental threats. Climate change (resulting from emissions of greenhouse gases), loss of biological diversity, and degradation of transboundary water bodies represent symptoms of increased pressure on the global environment.

World leaders began coming to grips with these threats when they took the first modest steps forward in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio. Various global conventions, agreements, and blueprints for action resulted from the summit and some are described in this paper to illustrate cross-sectoral linkages and implications for water resources and their management. Among these accomplishments was the creation of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The new and additional finance through GEF represents an opportunity for nations to incorporate actions addressing these global issues into their development plans and are outlined in the paper.

The São Francisco and Plata basins are quite representative of challenges facing the world in addressing these global environment issues. Very complex environment-water linkages are discussed for both basins in this article to illustrate how difficult the situation really is and how unprecedented the challenge that the world community faces. Both the North and the South have enormous changes to make to meet these challenges. With cities such as Bele Horizonte and Buenos Aires, with sophisticated irrigation projects such as those near Petrolina, and with significant industrial pollution, the two river basins embody not only issues common to the South but those typical of the North as well.

Given the enormous environmental, social, economic, and political implications of these challenges, the dwindling amounts of official development assistance, and the political reality that spending in the South will focus on activities with domestic benefits rather than global benefits, how can countries respond to their new duties and obligations? The challenge is even more fundamental than that. Each global convention or action programme has its own sectoral implications, its own separate political champions, and its own fragmented approach. Which deserves priority? How can nations respond when the rules are changing as institutions evolve? How can common sense be brought to complex, confusing, changing global approaches that are made more fluid by pressures related to privatization, private sector speculation, and globalization of economic systems? There are no models for making such complex changes during times of uncertainty. What is certain is that global change is occurring on many levels and the North as well as the South has only a short time to respond before irreversible changes may diminish the quality of human existence and the sustainability of our life support ecosystems.

It is the thesis of this paper that a practical approach to making these changes can be implemented through adaptive management strategies based on a more comprehensive approach to water-resources management river basin by river basin in each country. While some interventions (such as for energy use efficiency) will need to be implemented sector-wide, some climate change, many biodiversity, and most land degradation and transboundary water resources interventions will be site-specific, will need to be selected based on countries setting priorities with participation by civil society, and will vary from one basin to another. With this site-specific nature and with the opportunity to multiply benefits depending on the location or the policy change in question, a more comprehensive, cross-sectoral, or holistic approach to basin management that incorporates opportunities for mainstreaming global environmental interventions may be attractive to donors and recipients.

Both the World Bank in its Water Resources Management Policy and the GEF recognize the importance of such a comprehensive approach. This paper makes the case for using such an approach river basin by river basin as a pragmatic platform upon which interventions may be anchored during these times of global change. Examples of opportunities for incorporating global environment considerations in improved, more comprehensive management of the São Francisco and Plata basins are included in the paper. When combined with programmes of experimenting (learning by doing) in each country as part of flexible, adaptive institutional arrangements, this comprehensive approach may provide a vehicle during the near term for nations to adapt little by little to global changes by making sensible priority interventions that might have multiple benefits in the context of planned economic development. The GEF is playing a catalytic role as recipient countries are testing different interventions and learning from the experiences. Over time, enough pilot projects, demonstrations, and policy changes will have been made so that results can be mainstreamed into development-financing strategies, and, ultimately, the goal of socially and environmentally sustainable development can be achieved.

Global environment threats and pressures

The earth's forest land is shrinking, the deserts are expanding, and soils are eroding. At the same time that the hungry planet needs more food to feed its rapidly expanding population, more land is going out of production from soil erosion (6-7 million ha/yr) and waterlogging/salinization (1-2 million ha/yr) than is being placed into production. And downstream, the eroded topsoil fills in reservoirs, canals, and rivers, exacerbates flood damage, and leads to reduced hydropower production or irrigation potential. In the US alone, over $5bn in damage is estimated to be caused each year from soil erosion (dark et al., 1985).

Fig. 1: Severity of degradation in drylands (by continent) (UNEP revised 1992. Based on survey of best national estimates)

Land degradation

In the drylands, in particular, terrible consequences are suffered by the poverty-stricken population as a result of land conversion and degradation. Deforestation, degraded rangelands, depleted soils, salinized land, and depleted aquifers impair the lives of 100 million of our planet's poor and threaten another 800 million people. Figure 1 shows that dryland degradation is a moderate to serious concern on every content, including Latin America.

Deforestation has become a globally significant phenomenon. While conversion to other uses is intended to support human existence, it may have the opposite effect of reducing the capacity of man to inhabit certain areas. While deforestation has increased dramatically over the last 20 years in the moist tropics, it is now decreasing in some Asian countries because they have run out of forests (Houghton, 1994). And the converted land is being abandoned at a record pace as its short-lived productivity declines. At current rates of deforestation, tropical forests may disappear from the earth in our children's lifetime (Houghton, 1994).

Biodiversity loss

With the loss of forests, the accelerated siltation and pollution of waterways, and the conversion of wetlands to agricultural uses, the earth's biological diversity is disappearing at unprecedented rates. Tropical forests are the focus of concern about the extinction of species because they contain so many species (perhaps 50-90 per cent of all life on earth). While the US and Europe have lost over 90 per cent of their original forest cover, Central America, South-East Asia, and West African tropical forests share the same fate. Perhaps thousands of native species may have been lost and tens of thousands of others threatened. The Global Biodiversity Assessment (UNEP, 1996) describes the nature and significance of the loss. Enormous potential economic value for pharmaceutical products and other items is at risk along with the potential improvement in quality of life that could accrue to the poor who might have become beneficiaries. Neither the ethical nor ecosystemic value of biodiversity is well understood, but once a species is lost, it is lost for all time. When many species are being lost, real concerns should be raised about the future of evolution and what this means to mankind.

Climate change

A linkage also exists among deforestation, land degradation, and climate change. Fully 25 per cent of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be attributed to deforestation (Houghton, 1994) and additional amounts to agricultural activities. Between 1950 and 1980, fossil fuel use worldwide increased by a factor of four. Energy use and patterns of consumption in the North fuel the concern about climate change. However, within a decade, emissions of greenhouse gases from developing countries will overtake the total emitted by the rich countries as energy use in Asia skyrockets in response to population increases and greater affluence.

Climate change threatens to disrupt weather patterns and raise sea levels around the world and to cause untold economic damage. Drastic changes in agricultural production, rainfall, and storm patterns are forecast. Entire island nations may disappear under modest half metre rises in ocean levels, and changes in storm patterns related to El Niño and the low pressure phenomenon off the coast of Argentina (associated with coastal flood damage) will accelerate damage. While the North has less poverty and more affluence available to adapt to climate change, the South with its greater poverty and lower economic capacity is more highly vulnerable to climate change and disruptions in civil society.

Cross-sectoral linkages to water problems

Water specialists recognize that these three global phenomena along with rapid population increase have an ultimate effect on local, regional, and maybe even global hydrologic and geochemical cycles. The effects will be felt in drought, floods, economic damage, increased costs, and damage to the environment. Enormously complex linkages exist among rivers, their watersheds and oceans with regard to the ability to serve as carbon sinks, preservation of key biodiversity that makes possible sequestration of carbon, and energy/weather patterns. The linkages are poorly understood and occur on so many levels that awaiting precise documentation may not be prudent. Preventive action is needed because the driving forces for adverse changes will have been set in motion and ecological as well as economic disasters may result that are international in character.

A good example involves the natural warming of the Pacific ocean off Peru, which has periodically created global changes in climate, rainfall, food production, and fishing. This effect has been called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO or El Niño for short). While this periodic ocean warming that builds storms and disrupts wind patterns has occurred on average every four years for less than a year since first noted in 1870, the effect is getting worse and is lasting longer. In fact surface ocean temperatures have increased the last several decades by 0.5°C which is the trigger for ENSO. Has climate change and ocean warming already occurred?

As noted by Tibbetts (1996), the worst ENSO occurred during 1982-1983 and the most recent serious one lasted for four years (1991-1995). During these events, droughts plagued North-East Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, China, and Africa. Crops failed in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Queensland, Australia, the drought took a $1bn toll on crops. Influences in Western Canada and the US are also reported along with large increases in rainfall in the Plata basin (Anderson et al., 1993). Fisheries collapse in certain areas of the world and explosions of algae blooms known as red tides result in depletion of oxygen and generate toxic effects (Tibbetts, 1996). As noted later in this paper, the possibility arises that devastating billion dollar floods in the Plata basin and devastating droughts in North-East Brazil (including the São Francisco basin) could be linked to climate change disruptions in ENSO and that the increase in frequency, severity, and duration of ENSO has either already resulted from climate change/or may get worse in the future. Taking this one step further, diversions of water from the São Francisco to combat droughts in Brazil's north-east may also be driven by these subtle changes in climate, and environmental damage to the São Francisco delta from additional diversions to drought areas may also then be driven by climate change.

Transboundary water resources

The world's water resources are under enormous stress, and the ecosystems, people, and economic development that depend on these resources face an uncertain future. The oceans have been fished out; estuaries have become eutrophic; and coastal zone wetlands have been drained, paved, farmed, or converted to aquaculture. Marine mammals and aquatic birds have become laden with toxic chemicals; diversions of water for agriculture have dried up rivers and lakes; pollution discharges have created health problems; and groundwaters have been overpumped and contaminated. Progress in addressing these issues has been disappointing within single nations, and resolving such concerns among nations in transboundary situations often seems impossible. Little by little, regional seas, shared river basins, international lake basins have become degraded and benefits they have historically provided are not ensured into the future. Little by little, the regional problems grow into larger problems to the point that they become globally significant.

There is no question that water scarcity and unsustainable water use threaten development in many countries. With projected population increases, many countries face dire predictions for near term water scarcity as described by Postel (1992). Competition for water for farming, human consumption, and industry is already keen and environmental needs are often ignored. Water scarcity means that food security is threatened and combined with reduced productivity from waterlogged and saline land as well as reduced productivity in eroded uplands; a strong case has been made for upcoming worldwide food shortage (Brown, 1996). Already, tens of millions of people have been turned into "environmental refugees," tens of millions more have migrated to large cities from the countryside, and the number of refugees may approach 100 million in the next century (Fell, 1996).

Worldwide, the linkage of freshwater basin activities to degradation of marine ecosystems is becoming apparent as pollutants from inland areas degrade many regional seas. Problem water bodies such as the Baltic sea need $20-30bn in remedial measures to address pollution and habitat (Kindler and Lintner, 1993). Even more will be needed to restore the eutrophic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Mississippi river pollution or to reduce contamination in the Volga that is plaguing the Caspian sea (Wolfson, 1990). It is clear that these transboundary water-resources issues also involve single country basins that drain to multi-country marine waters because of interconnections between land activities and downstream ecosystems.

These interconnections are very complex with multiple causes of ecosystem degradation and subsequent loss of jobs and economic impacts. It is not just pollution or conversion of important wetland habitat, such as loss of mangroves due to conversion to shrimp ponds in Asia, that creates transboundary conflicts in marine waters. Over-fishing is an enormous problem due to open access without adequate management regimes, overcapacity in fishing fleets with modern technology and government subsidies creating distortions in markets. All 15 oceanic fisheries are being fished at or beyond capacity and 13 are in a state of decline, some possibly lost forever (Brown, 1996). Almost one billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein. With the oceans being fished out and irrigation expansion being stalled by costs and adverse environmental impacts, there is a serious threat to food security in the near future that has transboundary water implications.

Table 1 outlines the broad array of countries that share international rivers, lakes, and enclosed seas. Transboundary water-resource problems, conflicts, and disputes in these basins are projected to grow, as noted by Duda (1994), and the magnitude of the water crises that will develop may constitute an unprecedented, globally significant problem (Biswas, 1994).

Global pressures

Overconsumption in the North is a key factor along with deforestation in creating risks from climate change. Soon energy consumption in the South will dwarf the North's contribution. While some may blame these global changes simply on population growth and the poor cutting forests, the case is not that simple. Very large and unprecedented changes in the earth's vegetative cover suggest root causes that are global rather than local.

Table 1: Major transboundary rivers, lakes, and enclosed sea

International rivers

Number of countries

Lake or sea

Number of countries



Mediterranean sea




Black sea




Baltic sea




South China sea




North sea




North sea




Caspian sea




Lake Chad




Lake Superior






Lake Victoria




Lake Tanganika


Duda (1994).

The information revolution, globalization of trade, agricultural export markets, the desire for countries to increase exports to gain foreign exchange to repay international loans, and common government subsidies result in policies that create environmental pressures. For example, recent estimates by the Worldwatch Institute document show over $500bn a year of taxpayers' money worldwide is spent by governments to subsidize deforestation, overfishing, and other environmentally destructive activities that add up to fuelling global change (Roodman, 1996). Other examples are provided in the discussions on the Plata and São Francisco basins.

Global institutional arrangements

Protecting the global environment requires a great deal of international cooperation. Protecting the global commons requires global action, not fragmented action in a few nations. The world community made a good start at Rio as a consensus began to develop on international agreements. A variety of new conventions, agreements, action programmes, policies (such as the World Bank Water Resources Management Policy) and funding sources such as the new Global Environment Facility (GEF) provides opportunities for nations to take damaged basins with significant conflicts and environmental degradation and work through to sectoral interventions in a comprehensive manner that can be more consistent with environmentally sustainable development. A brief outline of each relevant instrument follows.


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), which became effective in March 1994, was an international acknowledgment that change in the earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind, and it calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries. While recognizing that various actions to address climate change can be justified economically in their own right and help in solving other environmental problems, the convention agreed on the need for all countries, especially developing countries, to have access to resources to achieve sustainable social and economic development. As developing countries progress toward sustainable development and their energy consumption grows, they will have to consider ways to achieve greater energy efficiency and control greenhouse gas emissions, including how to apply new technologies in ways that are economically and socially beneficial. BOX 1 provides a capsule summary of the FCCC.


Beyond the ethical and aesthetic aspects of protecting biodiversity, loss of species and habitat have serious social and economic costs. Biodiversity loss represents lost options for being able to adapt to change, and in fact it represents an important part of the earth's natural capital.

Biodiversity is being destroyed by humans at an alarming rate and without urgent action, future options will be reduced. While maybe 1,000 species have become extinct during the last several centuries, loss and conversion of habitat worldwide have probably committed tens of thousands of more species to extinction (UNEP, 1996). Box 2 summarizes the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed at the Earth Summit in 1992.

BOX 1. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)

While climate has changed naturally in the past over long periods, the accelerated pace at which greenhouse gas-included climate change may take place in the future could be too fast for some ecosystems to adjust and too expensive for some countries to adapt. This rapid pace of change was instrumental in over 150 countries signing the FCCC at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. More than 160 countries have now become Parties to the Convention, the objective of which is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (Article 2).

Various obligations of countries are listed in Article 4, including: (a) financial commitments for developed countries, (b) development of emission inventories, (c) formulation and implementation of national programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change, (d) promotion and cooperation in the development, application, and transfer of technologies, practices, and processes that control, reduce, and prevent man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

In addition to national programmes, technology development and reporting of emission inventories as well as national steps taken to implement the Convention, Parties are required to take into account, where feasible, climate change considerations in relevant social, economic, and environmental policies and actions. For these changes to be made, the concept of sustainable development must evolve and be put into practice. Further negotiations are needed on a protocol to the FCCC that sets emissions reduction goals because it is simply a framework convention. Until the Conference of the Parties decides on permanent financial arrangements, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) operates the interim funding mechanism for developing countries to conduct projects and activities under the Convention.

Land degradation

Prevention and control of land degradation, primarily desertification and deforestation, are critical to achieving sustainable development. However, the environmental and economic consequences of land degradation are not confined to the countries where it occurs. Its impacts, in terms of loss of biodiversity, reduced atmospheric and subterranean carbon sequestration, and pollution of international waters can be significant and global. The environmental problems of drylands cause more misery than those in any other part of the globe. In the last two decades there have been at least 10 million environmental refugees within and from the drylands. A fifth of the world's population is affected to a lesser, though often critical degree. Most of the world's poorest countries are in the dry parts of the world.

BOX 2. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

Like the FCCC, the CBD was negotiated in various sessions leading up to the Earth Summit in June 1992, where over 100 nations signed the treaty. As of late 1996, almost 170 countries had signed the Convention. The CBD reflects growing consensus that biodiversity conservation and management is an integral part of sustainable development. Many sectors of a country's economy depend directly or indirectly on the diversity of various ecosystems, and poor people, in particular, utilize these resources to provide livelihoods for their families.

The Convention's objective is the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits stemming from utilization of biodiversity, including genetic resource. The CBD focuses on development issues which include integrating biodiversity concerns into national decision making, utilizing socio-economic policies and incentives for making decisions through environmental and social impact assessments, and controlling processes and activities threatening biological diversity. Each party has a responsibility for conservation and sustainable use of its own biological diversity through its own processes, activities, and institutions. Implementation of the Convention is through national strategies, plans, and programmes that integrate with decision-making in sectoral activities. Countries are asked to establish priorities and then report them to the CBD Secretariat through strategies and plans.

The Convention includes articles dealing with genetic resources, capacity and institution building, access to technology transfer and biotechnology. The rights and contribution of indigenous communities to sustainable use is explicitly recognized and equitable benefit sharing is to be included. Developed nations are to provide financial resources to enable developing countries to implement the CBD and benefit from it. As with the FCCC, the GEF has been named to operate the interim financial mechanism for the CBD until a permanent mechanism is chosen.

Dryland environmental problems develop for a multiplicity of reasons: drought; desiccation; land degradation; civil unrest; international conflict; economic pressure; demographic pressure; and many others. It is seldom, if ever, easy to discover the relative roles of the different factors. It is even difficult to choose measures of distress, and most, when chosen, are found to have very little geographical or temporal generality. The complexity, as well as the extent of dryland environmental problems has hampered treatment. Despite the situation the world community came to a consensus on action, as is noted in Box 3.

Transboundary waters

With respect to international freshwater basins (including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and transboundary groundwaters), no single binding legal instrument articulates a global consensus on sound use, conservation, and development of the resources. However, a large number of bilateral and multilateral agreements and management authorities exist. In addition, the non-binding Dublin Statement and draft articles undertaken by the International Law Commission (ILC) on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (Biswas, 1994) represent some measure of international consensus.

The architecture of marine agreements, in particular, is quite complex. The marine agreements are consistent with and operate within the legal framework of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in November 1994. It provides a global framework for the protection and management of the marine environment and its living and non-living resources, as is noted in Box 4. It is reinforced by a web of global and regional agreements, including those on regional seas, pollution from land-based sources, wetlands, protected areas and species, fisheries, hazardous substances, biodiversity, and climate. Agenda 21 recognized UNCLOS as "the international basis upon which to pursue the protection and sustainable development of the marine and coastal environment and its resources."

While UNCLOS refers to the linkage of freshwater basins and their influence on marine waters, little in the way of substance was negotiated to produce action. These provisions are quite controversial and the Global Programme of Action described in Box 5 for addressing this concern contains no funding mechanism.

BOX 3. UN Convention to Combat Desertification

The environmental problem of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid regions attracted world attention during the 1970s when Africa experienced serious droughts. An approach toward international action was taken in 1977 at the UN Conference on Desertification in Kenya with the formulation of a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification. As with other international "action plans" without financial mechanisms, funding was inadequate, progress was disappointing, and a new initiative was in order.

The issue of desertification was placed back on the international environmental agenda at the 1992 Earth Summit. A key chapter of Agenda 21 addressed the global problem and recommended further political attention. This was achieved in 1994 in Paris when 102 nations signed the Convention, which entered into force in December 1996. The objectives of the Convention are to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought in countries experiencing serious drought or desertification. It is designed to be implemented through National Action Programs (NAPs) prepared by national consultative committees charged with the support of international cooperation, consistent with Agenda 21.

As part of the Rio process, governments recognized that desertification is not just a technical problem but rather is a social and political problem as well. The necessity for community involvement and commitment to actions on the ground are included in the text and recognize the importance of grassroots groups and NGOs in helping people who depend on drylands for their livelihood. The Convention is also to be implemented through regional action programmes contained in four annexes. Latin America and the Caribbean constitute one of the four regions.

All parties are to adopt an integrated approach addressing the physical, biological, and socio-economic aspects of desertification and drought, including paying attention to the influences of international trade, marketing arrangements, and debt. With its bottom-up approach, through community involvement, parties are asked to improve living conditions for the poor trying to maintain a sustainable existence in drylands and are called upon to facilitate participation and address root causes of desertification through changes in legislation and policies. Developed country parties are obliged to provide financing and other forms of support through bilateral and multilateral financial mechanisms to mobilize and channel "substantial financial resources to affected developing country parties."

Unlike the UNFCCC and the CBD, the GEF is not asked to operate an interim financial mechanism and no new fund is established for combating desertification. Rather, improved management mobilization and coordination of existing funds is promoted through establishment of a "Global Mechanism." An organization is to be chosen to host this mechanism and will be directed by the Conference of Parties to promote the availability of financial mechanisms and to consider ways of facilitating funding at the national, regional, and global levels, including resources needed for transfer of technologies on a large scale to developing country parties.

The goal of negotiating conventions is to achieve agreement among countries to constrain their actions, often with perceived adverse economic implications. The political reality is that sovereignty issues - especially between developed and developing countries - will remain an overriding concern, and many countries will want to retain formal control over their policies. Domestic policy and actions are often seen to be separate from international policies and actions. However, for water quality, quantity, and ecosystem concerns, changes are often needed in each country's domestic policies and activities, including changes in sub-national (provinces, states) sectoral policies and activities. With site-specific actions being needed to address the particular problems of each basin or marine ecosystem, global conventions or regional framework conventions may not be sufficient to address transboundary water-resources issues. And with fragmented approaches for each convention, which one is priority? Where can a country begin? How can funding priority be justified?

Global Environment Facility

Two years before the Earth Summit, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) was established as a pilot programme to test new approaches and innovative ways to respond to global environmental challenges in its four focal areas of climate change, biodiversity conservation, ozone depletion, and international waters. In March 1994, after 18 months of negotiations, agreement was reached in Geneva to transform the GEF from its pilot phase into a permanent financial mechanism. The restructured facility, with its $2bn trust fund, is open to universal participation (currently 155 countries) and builds upon the partnership between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Bank - which are its implementing agencies. In addition to the four focal areas, activities to address land degradation are also eligible for funding insofar as they relate to one or more of the four focal areas.

BOX 4. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

In 1982, following a lengthy 24-year negotiation process, 159 nations signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Convention puts in place a broad framework for protecting the marine environment. It essentially gives a binding effect to Principle 21 of the Stockholm Conference by requiring all states to ensure that pollution from activities under their jurisdiction or control does not cause damage to the marine environment of other states. In a broad sense, UNCLOS calls on states to prevent, reduce, and control pollution from land-based sources, the atmosphere, dumping, vessels and installations used in exploring and mining the sea bed. UNCLOS outlines the general obligation of all states to take measures against pollution of the marine environment, including the establishment of national rules, standards, recommended practices and procedures to achieve its objectives. States are also required to cooperate with neighbouring nations to harmonize policies and programmes at the appropriate regional level and to monitor, evaluate, and analyse effects of marine pollution.

While UNCLOS does not specifically address comprehensive protection of living resources of the marine environment, it does establish basic obligations of states to protect, conserve, and manage these resources in various zones within and beyond national jurisdiction. Within continental shelves and exclusive economic zones, individual coastal states have the power to determine allowable catch of living resources and UNCLOS reaffirms that states have sovereign rights to exploit these resources. It also defines the rights and obligations of states fishing on the high seas and calls for future international agreement on fishing.

Given 24-year negotiation process for UNCLOS and its 12-year period before coming into force, addressing environmental issues of marine waters is certainly controversial. While it is a "global convention" like the CBD and UNFCCC, UNCLOS is simply a framework convention without a funding mechanism for its pollution and fishery provisions and with no specific provisions or protocols for driving action. It is merely an umbrella for providing guidance on a general level for future action. In fact, it sets the stage for future negotiations between the North and South by preserving the ability of states to respond locally or regionally rather than in response to uniform global standards or requirements that might stunt national growth in the South. Despite this broad global legal framework and flexibility, the fact remains that the oceans and exclusive economic zones are being perilously overfished and coastal zones are purposely being used as receptacles for waste from land-based economic activities and communities.

BOX 5. Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GAP)

While land-based sources of marine pollution are specifically mentioned in two sections of UNCLOS (Articles 207 and 213), the lack of consensus and hesitancy over costs of commitments resulted in very general wording back in 1982. The general provisions about establishing guidelines, rules, and monitoring systems as well as harmonizing policies at the regional level (while taking into account the economic capacity of developing states and their need for economic development) did not result in progress and in fact coastal/marine ecosystems have become even further degraded over the last two decades.

In 1983, UNEP convened a group of experts to prepare guidelines (1985 Montreal Guidelines for the Protection of the Marine Environment Against Pollution from Land-Based Sources) to give life to these general provisions of UNCLOS. Unfortunately, the UNEP Governing Council only took note of the Guidelines rather than adopting them. As a result of planning for the Earth Summit and a 1991 meeting of experts held on the subject by UNEP, the subject was included in the negotiations of Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 and in fact was expanded from just pollution to all "land-based activities" such as physical habitat destruction, sediment, and airborne pollutants.

Chapter 17 of Agenda 21 called upon UNEP to convene an intergovernmental meeting on land-based activities, and Decision 17/20 of the UNEP Governing Council in May 1993 authorized the preparation process for adopting a programme of action. Following preparatory meetings in Montreal, Reykjavik, and Washington, 109 countries met at an intergovernmental meeting in Washington, D.C. in late 1995 to adopt the GPA and its "Washington Declaration."

In adopting the GPA, governments set as their common goal sustained and effective action to deal with all land-based imports on the marine environment. The GPA identifies actions needed at various levels of society to prevent, control, and reduce the degradation of the marine environment. It classifies areas of concern (such as sewage or persistent organic pollutants), establishes priority action areas and defines strategies and programmes to take advantage of numerous instruments that currently exist. While most financial resources must come from domestic sources, external sources such as bilateral donors and international financing institutions are also expected to cooperate. Unlike the UNFCCC and the CBD, the GPA does not include an explicit financial mechanism. However, the GEF is invited to build upon the work of the GPA and to fund the agreed incremental costs of activities consistent with GEF's Operational Strategy. An information clearinghouse mechanism is also included in the GPA to provide assistance to countries and UNEP is directed to support the regional thrust of the GPA through the Regional Seas Programme.

States declare their intention to: develop or review national programmes, implement the programmes, cooperate to build capacity and mobilize resources, take immediate preventive and remedial actions, cooperate on a regional basis, urge national and international institutions and bilateral donors to accord priority to projects under the GPA, and develop a global, legally binding instrument for the reduction or elimination of 12 persistent organic pollutants that are known to bioaccumulate in marine life and pose threats to human and ecosystem health. Various objectives, national activities, regional actions, and international actions are recommended for different areas of concern.

In restructuring the GEF, governments ensured that it fully embodied the principles that were set out in the Rio conventions as well as Agenda 21. The GEF serves as a mechanism for international cooperation for the purpose of providing new and additional grant and concessional funding to meet the agreed incremental costs of measures that achieve global environmental benefits in the four focal areas. In October 1995, the GEF Council adopted an operational strategy, which represents the strategic framework for actions of the GEF in its four focal areas. According to the strategy's principles, the GEF will fund projects and programmes that are country-driven and based on national priorities designed to support sustainable development.

GEF operational strategy

The GEF operational strategy (GEF, 1996a) has been developed to guide the preparation of country-driven initiatives in the GEF's four focal areas. This strategy will assist the GEF Secretariat and its three implementing agencies in developing work programmes, business plans, and budgets. It will also guide the GEF Council in approving these activities.

The operational strategy for biodiversity sets forth an approach for implementing the GEF's mandate in biodiversity. It provides a framework for the development and implementation of GEF-financed activities to allow recipient countries to address the complex global challenge of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. It also provides a framework for systematic monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of GEF-financed activities and incorporates guidance from the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the CBD.

The main strategic considerations guiding GEF-financed activities to secure global biodiversity benefits are: (a) integration of the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity within national and, as appropriate, subregional and regional sustainable development plans and policies; (b) helping to protect and sustainably manage ecosystems through targeted and cost-effective interventions; (c) integration of efforts to achieve global benefits in other focal areas where feasible, and in the cross-sectoral area of land degradation, primarily desertification and deforestation; (d) development of a portfolio that encompasses representative ecosystems of global biodiversity significance; and (e) that GEF activities will be targeted and designed to help recipient countries achieve agreed biodiversity objectives in strategic and cost-effective ways.

The GEF operational strategy in climate change incorporates the policy guidance of the COP to the FCCC. The COP provided initial guidance on eligibility criteria, programme priorities, and policies for the financial mechanism, whose operation, on an interim basis, is entrusted to the GEF. Enabling activities facilitate implementation of effective response measures. Mitigation measures reduce or lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from anthropogenic sources or protect or enhance removal of such gases by sinks (thus reducing the risk of climate change). The GEF assists in implementation of national programmes by supporting agreed mitigation activities that meet either long-term or short-term criteria. Adaptation activities minimize the adverse effects of climate change. Initially, the GEF will meet the "agreed full costs of relevant adaptation activities undertaken in the context of the formulation of national communications." These are the "Stage I adaptation activities" outlined by the COP. Funding for adaptation activities beyond Stage I will be dependent on COP guidance. The overall strategic thrust of GEF-financed climate change activities is to support sustainable measures that minimize climate change damage by reducing the risk, or the adverse effects, of climate change. The GEF will finance agreed and eligible enabling, mitigation, and adaptation activities in eligible recipient countries.

Three initial operational programmes for the climate change focal area are proposed on the basis of a review of technical assessments, including recent work for the GEF on the cost reductions expected in new energy technologies. These programmes are consistent with the guidance provided by the COP and with the most recent findings of the IPCC. The three operational programmes that will be developed initially are:

- removal of barriers to energy conservation and energy efficiency;

- promotion of the adoption of renewable energy by removing barriers and reducing implementation costs;

- reduction of the long-term costs of low greenhouse gas-emitting energy technologies.

In the international waters area, GEF's objective is to contribute primarily as a catalyst to the implementation of a more comprehensive, ecosystem-based approach to managing international waters and their drainage basins as a means of achieving global environmental benefits. The GEF implementing agencies assist countries to find means of collaborating with neighbouring countries in order to change the ways human activities are undertaken in different economic sectors so that transboundary conflicts and problems can be resolved. The goal is to help groups of countries use the full range of technical, economic, financial, regulatory, and institutional measures needed to operationalize sustainable development strategies for transboundary water bodies and their contributing drainage basins.

The operational strategy (GEF, 1996a) outlines priorities to be addressed in this focal area. GEF activities focus on threatened transboundary water bodies and the most imminent threats to their ecosystems. Five types of action are targeting these hazards:

- Control of land-based sources of pollution that degrade the quality of international waters. Prevention of releases of persistent toxic substances and heavy metals, as well as nutrients and sediments, into basins of international waters with rare and endangered species or unique ecosystems is of particular importance. A particularly high priority is placed on interventions to address persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

- Prevention and control of land degradation where transboundary environmental concerns result from desertification or deforestation.

- Prevention of physical and ecological degradation of critical habitats (such as wetlands, shallow waters, and reefs) that sustain biodiversity and provide shelter and nursing areas for threatened and endangered species.

- Improved management and control measures that better guide the exploitation of living and non-living resources and address such problems as overfishing or excessive withdrawal and diversion of freshwater from transboundary basins.

- Control of ship-based sources of chemical washings and non-indigenous species which are transferred in ballast water and can disrupt ecosystems or adversely affect human health.

In its first five years, 65 developing countries and those in economic transition have received funding to participate in GEF international waters projects. Table 2 provides a listing of transboundary freshwater river basin, lake basin, and large marine ecosystems that have received GEF funding. A wide variety of situations in all five economic development regions of the world are represented in the portfolio.

Table 2: GEF international waters projects

Transboundary river basins*

Transboundary lake basins*

Large marine ecosystems*

Danube (14)

Lake Victoria (3)

Gulf of Guinea (5)

Dneiper (3)

Lake Tanganika (4)

East Asian seas (9)

Bermejo (2)

Lake Malawi (3)

Black sea (6)

Okavango (3)

Lake Titicaca (2)

Mediterranean (18)

Tumen (4)

Lake Ohrid (2)

Gulf of Aqaba (3)

Aral sea basin (5)

Red sea (6)

Plata maritime front (2)

W Indian ocean (8)

GEF (1996b). Table includes projects underway or in preparation with GEF funding.
* Figure in ( ) is number of countries.

Fig. 2: GEF project funding by focal area (1991-1996)

Over the first five years of GEF activities (three in a pilot phase and two following restructuring), approximately US$1.334bn in grant funding has been allocated to the focal areas as is shown in figure 2. Climate change projects have received approximately 39 per cent of the funding as of the end of 1996 while biodiversity projects received 35 per cent and international waters projects 12 per cent. Approximately 160 countries have expressed interest in officially participating with GEF.

A comprehensive approach to water resources

Over the last two decades, we have witnessed an evolution in water-resource management thinking - from the Mar del Plata Conference in the 1970s to the Law of the Sea Convention in the 1980s and the Dublin Statement and UNCED in the 1990s. This evolution has resulted in a consensus that a more comprehensive approach to water-resource management is needed - one that is cross sectoral in nature, that integrates ecological and developmental needs, and that is based on protecting the ecological sustainability of the water environment. This means that, at the highest levels of government, recognition should be given that water and watersheds must be managed as valuable natural resources to meet multiple uses rather than as mere inputs to specific sectoral activities.

The World Bank has recently called attention to mismanagement of surface and groundwater resources and the water environment as a significant impediment towards poverty reduction and sustainable development. The Bank's Water Resources Management Policy, adopted in 1993 after a lengthy process of consultation with NGOs, governments, and international organizations, calls attention to the need for countries and development organizations to adopt a more comprehensive approach to water-resources management (World Bank, 1993). This new approach represents a quantum shift from sector by sector projects to a more holistic approach recognizing the river basin as the appropriate unit for managing not only water quality, quantity, and ecosystems but also sectoral development initiatives. Economic sectors are now asked to take full responsibility for preventing the degradation of water resources by modifying existing activities, using pollution prevention strategies in new activities, and coordinating across sectors so that the water environment can be sustained for its multiple purpose uses. Interaction among different, but interrelated sectors is now being mandated so that sustainable development goals can be achieved. A whole host of financial management, economic, policy reform, technological, and participatory tools are also recommended including use of market-based instruments.

The Bank will provide assistance to member countries in developing a comprehensive approach to water-resources management suitable for the country's needs, resources, and capabilities. An emphasis is placed on building effective institutions to protect, enhance, and restore water quality and aquatic ecosystems that have been damaged by pollution or past development projects. Legal and regulatory reforms, emphasis on economic incentives, proper pricing policies, decentralization of water service deliveries, and active participation of beneficiaries, stakeholders, and the poor in water-resources management activities are stressed.

The comprehensive approach has important implications for involving different sectoral interests, different government ministries, and the public in participatory processes for improving water-resources management. Country water-resources management strategies (based on analysis prepared as part of cross-sectoral water-resources assessments) are being recommended as first steps for countries as they seek to implement this comprehensive approach. These processes provide opportunities to participate in identifying cross-sectoral influences on the water environment, finding opportunities for complementary cross-sectoral actions, setting priorities for action by different sectors, and then determining strategies for how to achieve sustainable, multiple use of the water environment. Such processes also provide the opportunity to build partnerships, institutional capacity, and NGO/stakeholder participation to more comprehensively manage a country's water resources in a sustainable fashion.

The GEF operational strategy also advocates this comprehensive approach for international waters projects (GEF, 1996a). Typically, projects begin with GEF-implementing agencies assisting the cooperating nations in undertaking strategic work. As noted in the operational strategy, this is done so that collaborating nations can each establish an inter-ministerial technical team to assemble information on the water-related environmental problems/conflicts and share this information with colleagues from the other nations in a committee setting. In this way, a transboundary water-resources analysis can be produced that contains the facts of the dispute, conflict, or problem as well as opportunities and needs. This factual analysis can serve as a start for determining country-driven environmental and water priorities. It also allows very complex basin problems to be divided into smaller, more manageable ones, each with a specific action programme for resolution.

As part of the process, the countries determine what actions, policy changes, regulatory developments, and sectoral programmes are needed to resolve the priority problems, threats, or conflicts. These steps allow for harmonization of actions among nations so that economic advantages do not accrue. The resulting GEF project provides an opportunity for the collaborating countries to diffuse political issues by focusing on technical fact-finding. They can learn about their shared transboundary ecosystem, learn how their sectoral activities and policies impact the water system, and learn to work together in joint problem solving - all without legalistic commitments and in a spirit of pragmatic cooperation because each country has a stake in the water issues. This joint effort may be able to build a sense of trust among participating individuals, and the experience may eventually lead to more formal and sustainable legal frameworks among nations in order to keep the initiative moving after the GEF project.

GEF's catalytic role helps to integrate transboundary water issues into national development plans, encourages the transfer of environmentally sound technology and knowledge and helps to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to play their full part in implementing needed interventions in different sectors. In essence, the GEF helps nations put together the essential pieces of a more comprehensive, ecosystems-based approach for managing transboundary waters as a means to operationalize sustainable development. GEF funds the transaction costs of these processes, it leverages the participation of other programmes and forms of development assistance, and it provides links to other GEF focal areas so that countries can effectively set priorities to achieve multiple benefits of GEF interventions.

Perspectives from the São Francisco basin

With its drainage area comparable to the Colorado or the Columbia rivers of North America, and with its economic importance to Brazil, the São Francisco basin is certainly one of the key basins of Latin America. Characterized by large cities like Belo Horizonte as well as by small villages in any of its six states, the basin holds about 16 per cent of the population of Brazil and flows for 2,700 kilometres before discharging to the Atlantic Ocean.

The World Bank has had a special role in the development of the São Francisco basin, which is known as the "River of National Unity." The basin has been the subject of development efforts for over 50 years. Government interventions, often constructed with loans from the World Bank, have been largely sectoral in nature and not integrated with environmental needs. The construction of hydro-power projects and large irrigation schemes has been reported elsewhere in this volume as creating complex environmental problems. Complex changes in flows and timing in addition to competition for water among industrial, agricultural and hydropower sectors has created the need to adopt a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to development as part of addressing the environmental problems.

An excellent description of the basin is presented by Romano and Cadavid Garcia (this volume). Other key sources of information include an extensive analysis of lessons learned by the World Bank on environmental issues in the basin (World Bank, 1992) as well as an assessment of pollution loading from the basin to the Atlantic (Jennerjahn et al., 1996). Of great importance to Brazil is the significant role that the São Francisco valley has played in the development of the impoverished and drought-prone north-east and that of the Brazilian economy as a whole. Many World Bank assisted projects have helped Brazil reduce the widening income disparity between the north-east and south-central portions of Brazil and to combat rural poverty. The over 12,000 megawatts of installed hydro-power capacity has powered industrial development in Brazil, and the water for irrigation in the semi-arid area has helped tackle rural poverty.

Environmental status

Beginning with the formation of the Companhia Hidro Eletrica do São Francisco (CHESF) in 1945 and the first World Bank loan to CHESF in 1950 to build the Paulo Afonso I power project, a number of governmental interventions in various sectors have been undertaken to promote regional development. The development was not planned in an integrated way, and it responded to market-driven exploitation as in other countries. Complex environmental problems have resulted worldwide from the traditional sector-based economic development strategies. As noted in the cited references, environmental deterioration, desertification, contamination of reservoirs, soil erosion, agricultural intensification, and drastically altered flow regimes have resulted in environmental degradation in the basin.

In the upper São Francisco basin, in the vicinity of the city of Belo Horizonte, contamination has resulted from the discharges of mines and ore-procession facilities, food-processing facilities, chemical and agrochemical industries, and discharges of sewage. Deforestation was also caused by logging for charcoal to fuel the industries. Consequences in the middle and lower middle São Francisco basin, due to dam construction, include destabilized river banks, which have contributed to increased movement of sediments downstream, changes in fisheries, eutrophication resulting from wastewater discharges, and land degradation (i.e. erosion and salination) due to agricultural development on marginal soils. In the lower São Francisco, environmental consequences include contamination from both agricultural and agro-industrial development, as well as wastewater discharges, which have contributed to public health concerns in the coastal zone.

Throughout the basin, the sectoral nature of the development along the São Francisco river has resulted in competition for water resources among the various industrial, agricultural, and hydroelectric production sectors in the basin. Soil degradation increases progressively from the headwaters to the delta, from 8.4 million tons/year at Pirapora to 32 million tons/year and more at Posto de Morpara and Manga. A significant proportion of this load enters the South-West Atlantic LME and is deposited in the São Francisco estuary, increasing marine algae production which contributes to eutrophication. Of even greater consequence was the creation of polders to dike coastal wetlands for agricultural use. With loss of wetlands due to the conversion and with changed flow regions, which eliminate cleansing floods that keep salt water closer to the ocean, complex environmental changes can occur like saltwater intrusion, accelerated sedimentation, pollution, loss of wetlands, and reduction of fisheries.

World Bank-assisted investments

The São Francisco is of critical importance to the survival of many small farmers in the impoverished north-east because it is the region's only perennial waterway. Without water there is no development, no biological diversity, no human existence - it is that simple. Development of the basin proceeded in a fragmented sector by sector, project by project manner just like the Columbia river, the Colorado river, the Ganges, and the Nile. As the World Bank (1992) acknowledged, this was a shortsighted approach that resulted in displacing almost 200,000 people from their lands and homes and has created complex changes in flow regimes and subsequent environmental quality.

Table 3 outlines the variety of Bank-assisted projects in the basin totalling billions of dollars. They run the range from dam construction, resettlement of displaced people, conversion of coastal wetlands to agricultural polders, hydropower projects, various traditional as well as quite modern irrigation projects, reforestation, and pollution abatement projects. Construction of Sobradinho dam and the Paulo Afonso cascade of power projects resulted in the increase of minimum flows at the coast that flooded out farmers who were encroaching on the wetlands. This flow increase prompted construction of dikes, polders, and irrigation schemes on the coastal converted wetlands to allow agricultural use. With increases in irrigation projects over time and with the desire to divert significant amounts of water from the valley to the semi-arid north for development, further threats may result to the coast.

Table 3: Selected world bank-assisted projects, São Francisco basin


Year approved

Paulo Afonso hydropower


Paulo Afonso IV hydropower (Sobradinho dam)


Lower São Francisco polders


Lower São Francisco second irrigation project


Upper and middle São Francisco irrigation project


Irrigation subsector project


Jaiba irrigation project


Northeast irrigation I


Minas Gerais forestry development


Water supply and sewerage - Minas Gerais I


Water supply and sewerage - Minas Gerais II


Water supply and sewerage - Minas Gerais III


Minas Gerais water quality and pollution control


In the case of land degradation, loss of biodiversity at the coast as well as in drylands, and land-based activities that degrade marine waters, all the problems are globally significant issues. In particular, the beach area north of the delta represents critical habitat for threatened and endangered sea turtles. Indigenous peoples from 18 different groups also live in the region. Their existence is at question with much of the wildlife and fish they used to depend on for animal protein being in jeopardy. Pollution at the coast accumulated from the basin, deforestation, loss of flooding due to regulation may all threaten reproduction of fish and may affect tribal lifestyles.

Comprehensive basinwide approaches

Increasingly competitive demands for water use from different sectors range from hydropower to irrigation, navigation, pollution disposal, interbasin transfer, urban/industrial water supply, and upstream flow needs to sustain the water environment, its biodiversity, and indigenous people who depend on the water. In addition, existing environmental degradation from fragmented sectoral development also needs to be addressed.

Such challenges are common worldwide and even greater conflicts with more environmental damage have resulted in the Colorado, Columbia, Ganges, and Nile basins. Such unsustainable development is inconsistent with the intent of Agenda 21 and the initiatives arising from the Earth Summit. However, there is no standard way to fix these problems or to incorporate global environmental interests into sectoral activities. Each convention seems to have its own separate requirements, initiatives and partners which invariably exclude sectoral ministries in governments and subnational levels of government.

The way ahead is through a more comprehensive, cross-sectoral, environmentally based approach to water resources management basin by basin as was advocated by Biswas (1993), World Bank (1993), and the GEF Operational Strategy (GEF, 1996a). This approach provides a way for different ministries and different subnational governments to participate in assessing water and land-related needs, problems, and opportunities in a basin and then work with stakeholders (even consult with them) to evaluate options, all opportunities, win-win situations from an environmental and an economic perspective to map a series of pragmatic interventions. This approach breaks the larger problems down into smaller, more manageable components for coordinated, practical action by different sectoral interests.

El-Ashry (1993), the World Bank (1993) in its water policy, and the GEF (1996a) in its Operational Strategy all encourage a balanced policy, regulatory, and demonstration approach to solving each component problem. Economic instruments are stressed and in fact are a key element in attempts to restore the Colorado (Morrison et al., 1996). Using these instruments not only for quantity purposes but also for water quality at the same time is an important concept. The US, Mexico, and Chile all use water-quantity markets, but this creates externalities and problems with the environment that need to be addressed simultaneously, not in a piecemeal way. Young and Congdon (1994) in particular describe how water-quality improvement markets can help address agriculture pollution.

Globally significant opportunities

As Mattos do Lemos (1996) has indicated, there is a new dawn of environmentalism in Brazil. Policies are changing and investments are being made in the environment. The São Francisco valley is a good example with a series of sewage and industrial pollution abatement prospects aimed at the Belo Horizonte area as noted in table 3 (Minas Gerais projects). An additional loan was requested to foster revegetation of cut-over and mined areas in the basin. This action provides global environment benefits by reducing erosion/land degradation and achieving sequestration of carbon. There has been a new approach to water resources in Brazil since January 1995 in bringing water-resources management under one umbrella. There is also a Citizens for Water Movement and a revitalized National Coastal Management Program resulting from an important meeting in Natal in 1996.

In the São Francisco, Romano and Cadavid Garcia (this volume) recognize that this comprehensive approach is needed to resolve conflicts, address important environment issues, and provide for sustainable development. The institutional element of this approach is important as well. A basin committee or basin organization that might be able to coordinate activities across sectors and levels of sub-national government is needed and it would also facilitate private sector and other stakeholder participation. Economic instruments show great promise, but only if combined with environmental regulatory requirements to ensure a level playing field among industries. Other economic aspects of the comprehensive approach are evident in Bank-assisted irrigation projects such as the Formaso A and H Schemes with decentralized responsibilities of user groups and suitable fees and tariffs to recover costs.

Pilot activities to protect biodiversity, to test out how economic instruments for both water quantity and quality concerns could work, and actions to address land degradation would all be encouraging. Subnational government and other local interest is growing. An Inter-State Parliamentary Commission for the Development of the Rio São Francisco (CIPE) was formed that is comprised of the Presidents of the Legislative Assemblies of the five states comprising the largest portion of the land area of the basin. In addition, the local government authorities created UNIVALE, the Uniao das Prefeituras do Vale do São Francisco, which includes representation from the municipalities in the basin. This union provides technical advice on issues such as energy production, irrigation development, sanitation and human settlements, tourism, transportation, education, and environmental protection. Even industries in all six states have joined to participate in dialogue. The stage is being set to implement the comprehensive approach.

If wetlands at the coast are restored by pulling out some polders and dikes, if areas are reforested to address soil erosion, if drylands biodiversity and special turtle habitat are protected, and if basinwide hydropower flow regimes are altered to recreate limited floods that restore coastal wetlands for fish habitat for the indigenous peoples, Brazil would have accomplished a globally significant activity. The flow regime is a key to ensure that water requirements to sustain coastal wetlands and fisheries is provided. Such actions would pilot an example of how the GPA might be implemented by UNEP to address land-based activities. While coastal and marine problems need to be diagnosed by marine specialists, remedial measures need to be cross sectoral in nature, need to be facilitated by freshwater basin experts, and must be undertaken in the context of new economic development fostered by comprehensive management.

Perspectives from the Plata basin

With a drainage area larger than the Nile, the massive Plata basin is second only to the Amazon in drainage area. Significant problems related to water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and subsequent sedimentation, altered hydrologic regimes associated with increased downstream flooding, and coastal fisheries depletion have created a challenge for the five riparian nations. Cordeiro (this volume) summarizes the situation of the Plata basin quite well while Wetlands for the Americas (1993), Bonetto (1989), and Bisbal (1995) provide more detailed ecological information demonstrating significant degradation.

Global linkages

Given the transboundary nature of the basin, the existence of world class habitat for biodiversity in coastal wetlands, the Pantanal, and in the upper basin, needs for reforestation, and concerns about changing climate, Plata basin environmental issues are global in nature. The issues are globally significant and the pressures on the ecosystem have a global driving force. In addition, the pressures in one part of the Plata can have influence on land, people, and the global environment through deforestation in another region. In addition, certain policy choices can end up limiting the ability of a country, or its downstream neighbour, to adapt to changing global conditions. If these issues seem complex, it is because they are. These linkages have not only been identified in the Plata basin but also in the US in the 1970s in response to export markets, international monetary systems, and national policies designed with a single sector in mind (Cook, 1985).

The Paraná basin has numerous environmental problems resulting from over three dozen dams designed for single purpose hydropower (Bonetto, 1989). With this policy, very little storage is made available to control floods. As a result of increased oil prices, desire to gain foreign exchange from exports to service debt and increased world prices for soybeans, agricultural modernization was undertaken in several Brazilian states by the military government to grow soybeans intensively in the Paraná basin (Mahar, 1989). This involved large machinery which tilled the land and created massive soil erosion which ended up in the reservoirs. The small farmers were displaced by modernization and the World Bank assisted the government in opening the Amazon in the State of Rondonia to displaced people from the Paraná and the São Francisco. This resulted in the Amazon deforestation that alarmed the world in the 1970s and 1980s (Mahar, 1989). Even though hydropower is thought to be an alternative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Fearnside (1995) showed that reservoirs in Brazil can be significant contributors of greenhouse gases along with slash and burn deforestation. Complex linkages exist among transboundary water problems, biodiversity loss, emission of greenhouse gases, and international markets that dictate domestic policies.

As is described elsewhere, floods in the Plata from upstream areas have become more frequent and more severe. Four contributing factors may interact to create this situation: increased rainfall associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), construction and operation of the series of 40 single purpose hydropower projects on the Paraná River, deforestation and conversion to soybeans in response to world market forces leading to serious soil erosion and increased stormflows, and downstream accumulations of sediment. Retrospective analyses are needed to determine primary causes of increased vulnerability to floods so that the feasibility of mitigation measures can be determined. If indeed climate change has warmed the ocean, influenced the ENSO, resulted in periodic droughts in the Brazilian north-east, and created more frequent floods in a basin with increased vulnerability due to its infrastructure, massive remedial measures would be needed in the basin. The massive downstream floods in 1983 and 1992 caused billions of dollars in damage to Argentina, Paraguay, and a small portion of Brazil. The World Bank provided an emergency loan for a $300m project for Argentina to fix damaged infrastructure after the 1992 flood and a subsequent $500m project in 1996 to raise dikes along the river, among other interventions. Globally significant changes may already be at work in the Plata basin.

Environmental threats

In addition to these complex influences, various transboundary water resources problems are evident. McCaffrey (1993) described disputes over dam construction in the Paraná basin between Brazil and Argentina. Excessive sedimentation from deforestation and overgrazing is significant in the Paraguay river basin from the Bermejo tributary system (Bolivia, Argentina). Toxic substances from mining and sedimentation is also a problem in the Pilcomayo (Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina). In fact popular periodicals report releases of 400,000 tonnes of sludge loaded with toxic substances from mine tailings ponds. Complex water pollution problems from Buenos Aires are evident in the Plata estuary (toxic substances, bacteria, and eutrophication) and overfishing remains a serious concern at the coast (Bisbal, 1995).

Five years ago, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay signed a treaty aimed at creating a free-trade zone and customs union known as Mercosur. With the future addition of Bolivia and Chile and interest from the European Union, enormous monetary and trade pressures may create additional global stress in the basin. Again, the environmental linkages are complex with enormously expensive dredging needed to keep shipping lanes open as ship traffic increases. The toxic substances in dredged spoil may pose problems as would planned upriver navigation improvements known as the Hidrovia project. Significant threats to biodiversity in the world's largest wetland (Pantanal) and elsewhere on the navigation route have been raised by Wetlands for the Americas (1993).

Addressing global priority issues

While there is serious transboundary environmental stress as well as complex biodiversity loss and climate change issues to address in the Plata basin, action is beginning. Both Uruguay and Argentina had GEF biodiversity projects in the pilot phase. Bolivia and Argentina asked for and have received a GEF international waters project in the Bermejo to address land degradation, soil erosion, and sustainable development. Uruguay and Argentina now have funding approved to prepare a GEF international waters project for the lower Plata basin centring on the Plata maritime front and its pollution as well as fishery issues. Argentina also has a GEF biodiversity project to protect vulnerable forest lands in its protected areas system.

Mercosur itself may provide an opportunity to address these global issues. In the context of Mercosur, nations would need to harmonize their environmental protection regulations so unfair competition does not result. World class biodiversity habitat is still left and urban areas are targets for subsidy removal to enable pricing policies to assist in preventing greenhouse gas emissions and releases of sewage. Despite this, the basin is now in a state of increased vulnerability to climate change damage because of the deforestation, sedimentation, and lack of storage capacity in reservoirs. Clearly all five nations will need to work together in a comprehensive, cross-sectoral manner if this economically significant flooding problem is to be reduced.

The way ahead: Toward sustainable development

Today, the way we think about water goes to the very heart of the increasing worldwide concern about human health, the environment, and the path towards sustainable development. Of all the natural resources needed for economic development, water is the most crucial element. We have examined how global environmental issues relate to the São Francisco and Plata basins. Both for the single-country São Francisco basin and the five-country Plata basin, a more comprehensive, cross-sectoral approach to development is needed so that priorities may be set and existing problems may be fixed as part of new development initiatives. Reforestation and sustainable agricultural practices can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Existing wetlands can be protected to nurture biological diversity and areas that have been drained or diked can be restored to provide essential habitat. Transboundary water pollution problems can be corrected.

The enormous challenges outlined here are not limited to these five nations or even the developing world. The need to mainstream global environmental issues into economic development strategies is also critical for the North. Protecting the global environment is a complex undertaking that will require an unprecedented degree of cooperation between the North and the South. Protecting the global commons requires a global response.

It is a time of global change in other aspects as well. Development assistance is falling and private sector investment is growing. Globalization of markets, finance systems, information, and private sector speculation create strong forces with uncertain modalities for control. Even global conventions to address these common issues are in a state of flux and confusion: uncertainty and politics can sometimes stall action.

Because it is a time of change with no models for how to mainstream these important environmental issues, we have put forward the thesis that since each of these issues is linked to or influenced by water resources, a more comprehensive, cross-sectoral approach to water management might be a pragmatic way to test interventions, to experiment, and to determine priorities or critical sites for main-streaming needed interventions. The river basin as an ecological unit can serve as a practical, fixed platform in a time of change for integrating the work of different sectors or for determining priorities so that interventions intended for one purpose might have multiple benefits for other purposes.

The strategy of adaptive management - of testing, learning, trying again - represents the only road forward. With declining funding and needed activities having a site-specific basis anyway, why not try to mainstream policies, activities, demonstration projects river basin by river basin with a goal of sustaining the ecological integrity of the water environment along with the goal of the particular intervention? Over time, governments will become more comfortable and experienced to the point where they may support needed sector-wide policy changes and activities.

Few issues have a greater impact on human life and the health of our planet than the way water resources are managed. If such a comprehensive approach proves useful, then an enormous opportunity exists for water professionals with skills in thinking cross sectorally and interdisciplinarily, in using their imagination, and in facilitating participation of stakeholders - especially the private sector - in undertaking priority-setting processes. A watershed provides a concrete way of thinking about abstract sectoral, policy, and globally significant interventions - a way of operationalizing conceptual notions. After enough testing and demonstrating during times of uncertainty on a solid platform of a river, lake, or coastal basin, mankind may just find that the road to sustainable development begins at home... right on your own watershed!


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