Federalism, water, and (de)centralization in Brazil: the case of the São Francisco River water diversion

Abstract

The Brazilian Northeastern semi-arid region’s history has been characterized by drought, water scarcity, and poor living conditions. For the last 100 years, institutions have been established to support the state sector’s different attempts to solve the water scarcity and poverty problems in the region. In the Brazilian federalist model that combines centralized decision power with a decentralized execution of public policies, the federal government promotes large-scale infrastructure interventions, such as the São Francisco River Water Diversion Project (SFRWDP). This article aims to show how intergovernmental relations, under the Brazilian federal system, enable centralized decision-making processes. We will analyze the roles of subnational and national entities and the factors influencing their interaction. Even though decentralized participatory water institutions are in place, the federal government controlled and centralized the process of approval of the SFRWDP as well as its implementation and management. While federal agencies dispute control over decision-making processes and financial resources, the states lack financial and institutional capacity to use the power that is attributed to them by the Water Law. The persistence of a federal system that perpetuates the federal government’s central role and the interstates’ power inequalities, may continue to wreck any attempt to promote decentralization and subnational and interstate collaboration in the Brazilian context.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The São Francisco River watershed covers six Brazilian states and the Federal District: Goiás, Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Alagoas (ANA 2013).

  2. 2.

    Capitanias hereditárias were a feudal system in which the King’s vassals were responsible for managing large amounts of land representing the Portuguese Crown’s interests. This system was put in place to defend the Colony and to better exploit it by capturing natives, taking their land, imposing Europeans beliefs and transforming them into submissive agents of the colonizers’ domain (Castro 1975).

  3. 3.

    According to the Constitution of 1988, rivers that cross two states are in federal domain while the others are in domain of the states. So, in watersheds where the main river is under the federal domain, at least three different domains will be in place (Lemos and Oliveira 2004). This is the case in 75% of the Brazilian territory, which pressures for interstate water negotiation (Gontijo and Trigo 2013).

  4. 4.

    The 9433 Water Law defined that the water system financial resources should be provided through charging water from users. Such revenue should be able to financially support the respective river basin water agency, research projects and infrastructures to improve water quality and availability. The amount to be charged is defined by the watershed committee’s members (Lemos and Oliveira 2004).

  5. 5.

    Since 1985, a group of young industrial entrepreneurs started to push for a new agenda towards industrialization, the use of market tools to promote efficiency to promote a self-sustainable production system. Participation was key to promote and legitimize such structural shifts. Considering water as a key supply to promote economic activities, the 1993 water state law became an essential fuel for industrial growth and services concentrated in larger urban areas. For these politicians, the SFRWDP was key to promote such development model in Ceará (Gontijo 2013).

  6. 6.

    The water will be redirected and distributed to four states through 477 km of canals, 4 tunnels, 13 aqueducts, 9 pumping stations, and 30 reservoirs. The total investment as for 2013 was over 2 billion dollars and is being financed by federal resources (Soares 2013).

  7. 7.

    To understand the reasons that lead donors to go against the project, check Roman (2017).

  8. 8.

    Comprised of 62 voting members representing the state, water users, and civil society organizations, the SFRWC is responsible for designing a new system for the allocation of water rights, creating different forums for public participation and implementing water charging at the watershed level (De Freitas 2015).

  9. 9.

    The majority of existing state watershed committees were at Ceará state (ANA 2013).

  10. 10.

    In 2006, the first agreement did not include as members of the MB representatives from watershed committees in place at the recipient watersheds because they did not exist. On the other hand, the SFRWC was against the SFRWDP and refused to participate at the MB. By 2014, there were watershed committees in place at the recipient watersheds as well as the SFRWC now was on board after implementing water charging from the water diversion project. Because of that, two seats were created.

  11. 11.

    Between 2006 and 2009, there were many implementation difficulties due to gaps in the technical project, legal tribulations related to environmental suits, and even climatic considerations: it rained more than normal (ANA 2009).

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Empinotti, V.L., Gontijo, W.C. & de Oliveira, V.E. Federalism, water, and (de)centralization in Brazil: the case of the São Francisco River water diversion. Reg Environ Change 18, 1655–1666 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-018-1371-1

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Keywords

  • Water governance
  • São Francisco River
  • Water diversion
  • Brazil
  • Federalism
  • Decentralization