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With Its Headwaters Dry, Brazilians Fear the Death of the ‘Old Frank’ River

The headwaters of the São Francisco River are located in the National Park Cantareira Mountains, in the city of São Roque de Minas. This is its state in January 2010. Image by Flickr user Thiago Melo (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The headwaters of the São Francisco River are located in the National Park Cantareira Mountains, in the city of São Roque de Minas. This is its state in January 2010. Image by Flickr user Thiago Melo (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The rain that fell on the Serra da Canastra (Canastra Mountains) at the end of October was not enough to feed the hopes that the headwaters of the São Francisco River, which dried out in September for the first time in history, will recover. Climate change, long droughts and increasing destruction of its ecosystem are some of the causes behind the disappearance of the source of one of South America's main rivers. The headwaters were considered, until now, permanent.

The river is so dry that fishermen are abandoning their work in Iguatama, in the west of Minas Gerais state, the first town to be bathed by the São Francisco. Três Marias, the river's first dam, is operating with a volume of 3.5 percent of its normal capacity and has recently seen its flow rate reduced. According to the São Francisco River Basin Committee (Comitê da Bacia Hidrográfica do São Francisco, CBHSF), if it doesn't start to rain, a stretch of 40 kilometers of river after the dam will dry out completely. In Sobradinho, in the state of Bahia, the second dam's volume is at 18 percent.

With 2,863 kilometres, longer than the distance between Madrid and Berlin, the São Francisco River passes through five Brazilian states — Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Sergipe — encompassing 504 cities and forming one of Brazil's main watersheds. Fondly nicknamed “Old Frank” (“Velho Chico”), it is also known to be the “river of national integration” since it unites different climates and regions and connects the Southeast and the Central-West with the Northeast. It is also called “the most Brazilian of all rivers”, as it is the only one among the main rivers that flows exclusively through Brazil, from its headwaters to its delta.

Even though the river is still running due to its many tributaries, the drought at its source is considered one the symptoms of the serious water crisis currently affecting Brazil's Southeast. To sociologist Roberto Malvezzi, it represents a historic bereavement to the São Francisco River and the people who live off it:

Nem o pior dos vaticínios nos anteciparia essa notícia. Agora não é mais previsão dos catastrofistas, dos apocalípticos, de ambientalistas sectários. Estamos diante do fato.

Not even the gloomiest of forecasts could have anticipated this news. Now it is not the word of catastrophists, of apocalyptics, of sectarian environmentalists. We are facing the facts.

The Old Frank has died of thirst, according to journalist Carlos Costa, who said it was “too sad” seeing the dry headwaters:

Ele não perecerá por completo porque também recebe água de outros afluentes, mas sua nascente já morreu e está cercada de pedras como se fosse em volta de uma sepultura. Um quadro triste! O “Velho Chico” morreu de sede em sua nascente, como outros rios poderão morrer também se eles não forem tratados com carinho, respeito e responsabilidade como se fosse mais um ser vivo, como na verdade é.

It won't die out completely because it also receives water flow from other streams, but its headwaters are dead, surrounded by stones as if it was a crypt. A sad picture! The Old Frank has died of thirst at its source, just like other rivers may also die if they are not treated with kindness, respect and responsibility, as a living being, like it actually is.

From Bahia, blogger Edivaldo Braga listed some of the problems that harm the “Old Frank”, which he says is crying out for help:

O Velho Chico está agonizando e prestes a morrer. A ponte que liga algumas cidades encontra-se completamente descoberta e denuncia o sério problema. A morte do rio significa o fim de muitos ribeirinhos.

The Old Frank is agonizing and about to die. It is a bridge that connects some cities, and now that bridge is completely dry, a sign of a serious problem. The death of the river might mean the end of many riverbank peoples.

The São Francisco is the only source of fresh water for many riverbank people — called “ribeirinhos” in Brazil — who also depend on it for agriculture, livestock and transportation through navigation. Markileide Oliveira's blog and photos show how the drought is affecting the mobility of the population of Xique-Xique, a town located in Bahia that depends on a portion of the “Old Frank”:

O Rio São Francisco vem enfrentando uma das maiores secas da sua existência, as várias cidades das suas margens sofrem com a falta de água. São inúmeros os relatos dos ribeirinhos, que contam as dificuldades enfrentadas no seu cotidiano. Muitos caminham a pé pelo leito do rio até chegarem à cidade e fazem o mesmo trajeto de volta para casa. Alunos das redes públicas chegam a usar três transportes para ir à escola, acordam às 5h para poder assistir a segunda aula por que a primeira não é possível. Os ribeirinhos estão aportando os seus barcos nas margens de um rio seco. Sem profundidade, as barcas de médio porte não conseguem navegar e os barqueiros buscam outras formas de sobrevivência, pois o transporte coletivo ficou impossibilitado. Os ribeirinhos estão substituindo os barcos por bicicleta, carroças, carrinhos de mão, entre outras possibilidades de locomoção.

The São Francisco River is facing one of the worst droughts in its history, many towns by its banks are suffering from the water shortage. There are numerous reports of people explaining the difficulties in their daily lives. Many walk by foot along the riverbed until they reach the nearest town, and walk all the way back home too. Children use up to three modes of transportation to go to school, they wake up at 5 a.m. to make it in time for the second class of the day because the first is just not possible. The “ribeirinhos” are mooring their boats by the banks of a dry river. With no depth, the mid-sized boats are unable to sail and boatmen are looking for other ways to survive because collective transportation was made impossible. People are replacing boats for bikes, carts, wheelbarrows and any other possibility of mobility.

Carroça substitui a canoa em Xique-Xique, Bahia. Foto de Markileide Oliveira, publicada com autorização.

Carts replace boats in Xique-Xique in the state of Bahia. Image by Markileide Oliveria, published with authorization.

While it's being “transposed”, the Old Frank dies out slowly

Devastation around the São Francisco is not a recent problem, and for years it has been documented by both specialists and citizens. In 2009, João Carlos Figueiredo, author of blogs Meu Velho Chico (My Old Frank) and Meu Velho Chico: memórias de uma expedição solitária (My Old Frank: memories of a lonely expedition, also available as an ebook) sailed the entire length of the river in a canoe for 100 days, rowing alone from its headwaters in the Cantareira Mountains to its delta in Piaçabuçu in Alagoas state. Responding to the drought in the mountains, he said:

Estamos chegando, rapidamente, no limite de resiliência (capacidade de recuperação) de nosso Meio Ambiente. Passado esse limite, o Brasil, gradualmente, se transformará em uma gigantesca savana seca e estéril. Regiões desérticas substituirão as florestas e as nossas gigantescas bacias hidrográficas. E até mesmo os ignorantes donos do agronegócio verão seus latifúndios se transformarem em terra seca e inútil para a lavoura. Será esse o nosso destino final?

We are quickly reaching our environment's limits of resilience (capacity to recover). After that, Brazil will gradually become a gigantic savanna, dry and fruitless. Deserts will replace our forests and our enormous watersheds. Even the ignorant agribusiness owners will see their latifundium become dry land and useless to cultivation. Is this our doomed fate?

Released in 2012, the book “Caatinga Flora of the São Francisco River: Natural History and Conservation” is the most complete description of the river's vegetation, and it concluded that its extinction is “inexorable”. A result of four years of research and exploration of more than 340,000 kilometers by more than 100 experts from all over Brazil, the book has warned of the dangers of the “transposition” project, a massive federal government plan that intends to bring the river's waters to the “sertões” — the Brazilian semi-arid regions. Experts say this will bring even more harm to the “Caatinga“, the only exclusively Brazilian biome which is already extremely threatened.

 Estação de Bombeamento do Eixo Leste do Projeto de Integração do Rio São Francisco. Foto: Moreira Jr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pumping station at the East Shaft of the Integration Project (transposition) of the São Francisco River, October 2014. Image by Flickr user Moreira Jr. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The transposition, which has already cost $3.2 billion to public reserves and is still not ready, has dedicated less than 10 percent of its expenses to the recovery of river headwaters and vegetation. According to some of the its critics, the project will benefit agribusiness rather than the poor population or the environment. Roberto Malvezzi warned that the process could even speed up the death of the São Francisco, already considered to be an intermittent river: 

Hoje ainda se fala na transposição, ela continua na mídia, por muitos considerada ainda como a redenção do semiárido. Vamos respeitar a ignorância dessa afirmação, afinal o Nordeste e o semiárido continuam desconhecidos para 90% dos brasileiros, mas vale lembrar que 40% do semiárido brasileiro está em território baiano, portanto, longe dos eixos da transposição.

Quantos ainda falam da revitalização? Alguém tem alguma notícia? O São Francisco continua em processo de extinção rápida e fatal. Mesmo assim fala-se em projetos de 100 mil hectares de cana irrigada em Pernambuco, 800 mil hectares de cana irrigada na Bahia, transposição para outros estados e assim por diante.

Certamente voltará a chover, o rio vai recuperar volume, mas as secas serão cada vez maiores e mais constantes. A NASA, anos atrás, projetava que o São Francisco seria um rio intermitente em 2060. Realizamos a façanha de antecipar a projeção em mais de 40 anos. 

Today people still talk about the transposition, it's still in the news headlines, for many it's considered the redemption of the semi-arid lands. Let's respect the ignorance of this statement, since the Northeast and the semi-arid areas remain unknown for 90 percent of Brazilians, but let's remember that 40 percent of the semi-arid areas are in the state of Bahia, therefore far away from the main shafts of the transposition.

How many still speak of recovery? Does anyone have any news on that? The San Francisco keeps heading toward extinction, quickly and fatally. Still, they're talking about projects of 100,000 hectares of sugar cane irrigated in Pernambuco, 800,000 hectares of sugarcane irrigated in Bahia, transposition to other states and so on.

It will certainly rain again, the river will recover some of its volume, but the droughts will become increasingly stronger and frequent. Years ago, NASA forecast that the São Francisco would become an intermittent river by 2060. We have beat that projection by more than 40 years.

About that prognosis, historian Carlos Bittencourt asks: “What are we transposing then?”

Transpõe-se a seca, transpõe-se a água que acaba aqui para lá. Transpõe-se a barbárie do Sudeste ao Nordeste, aponta-se a proa do navio para o buraco. Soluciona-se a causa aprofundando as consequências. Círculo vicioso da acumulação de capital, da coisificação da vida e dos meios da vida. A transposição do Rio São Francisco bebe da mesma água de sua extinção.

We transpose the drought, we transpose the lack of water from here to there. We transpose barbarism from the Southeast to the Northeast, we point the ship's bow to the hole. We solve the causes by aggravating the consequences. A vicious cycle of the accumulation of capital, of the objectification of life and its means. The transposition of the São Francisco River drinks from the same water of its extinction.

Historically, the northeastern region has always dealt with prolonged droughts. The news now is that the Southeast, where the São Francisco headwaters are located, also faces a serious rain shortage. Geographer and São Paulo-based blogger Martina Sanchez concluded that Brazilians need to understand that nature follows its course, its cycles and phases, and the only alternative left for humans is to adapt:

Algo está confundindo os climatólogos que não acertam com as causas da seca prolongada no Sudeste neste ano (2014). Até as nascentes do Rio São Francisco na serra da Canastra (MG) secaram. O nível dos reservatórios da Cantareira, na cidade de São Paulo, está baixo e começa a comprometer o abastecimento. É o aquecimento global! Dizem uns. Outros acusam sobre o mau uso dos recursos hídricos, a falta de planejamento, o  excesso de consumo e desperdício. Todos têm razão e nenhum tem o direito de apontar o dedo para o outro. Os cidadãos terão que aprender a conviver com os extremos climáticos que não obedecem a decretos nem leis humanas.

Something has been confounding climatologists who can't agree on the causes of the long drought that has hit the Southeast this year (2014). Even the headwaters of the São Francisco River have dried out. The levels of the reservoirs of Cantareira in São Paulo are low and start to compromise the city's water supply. It's global warming! some say. Others blame bad management of water resources, lack of planning, excess of consuming and wasting. Everyone is correct and no one has the right to point the finger at the other. People must learn to live with climate extremes that do not obey decrees or human laws.

Vista do Rio São Francisco a 8000 metros de altura. "Só pra você ter idéia da imensidão do 'Velho Chico'", por George Vale, publicada no Flickr com licença do Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

View of the São Francisco River from a height of 8,000 meters. “Just so you might grasp the sheer size of the Old Frank” in October 2012. Image by Flickr user George Vale (Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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