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Water “Highways” Make their Way into Latin America

April 29, 2014


The São Francisco river in Brazil’s northeast extends for 2,830 km, 1,300 of which are navigable

Mariana Ceratti / World Bank

  • An ambitious plan seeks to integrate waterways into transportation networks in Brazil and beyond

Imagine a road thousands of kilometers long without potholes, toll booths or traffic jams connecting three great regions in one of the largest countries in the world. A waterway that could be used both by passengers and cargo, which is also completely green and no dollars were needed to build it.

Now imagine that this road already exists and practically hasn’t been used in half a century. Instead, inhabitants of this region use roads that are dangerous and in poor condition, full of tired drivers on exhausting journeys with no rest.

Adding another element to this scenario. Imagine that this is happening in one of the poorest regions of a country, which spends US$31.62 billion every year in transportation, a figure that represents almost 40% of all national spending on logistics.

It is neither Russia nor China: it’s Brazil.

The result of a strategy adopted in the 1960s to prioritize roads in the country’s development, Brazil now boasts 214,000 km of paved roads, 1,300,000 km of unpaved roads and 30,000 km of railroads.

“This type of damage is the result of a decision taken when Brazil wasn’t yet the agricultural power it is today,” recalls Julio Cezar Busato, President of the Farmers and Irrigators Association of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil.

However, the idea of using Brazil’s enormous rivers for passenger and cargo transportation is beginning to take shape again, at a fraction of the cost of overland transportation and with the added possibility of integrating them with other, existing transportation systems and modes.

São Francisco River

One of the rivers where this strategy has already been put to practice is precisely the long toll and jam-free highway we were imagining before: the São Francisco river in Brazil’s northeast, which extends for 2,830 km, 1,300 of which are navigable. There are 13,000 km of waterways throughout the country.

Those inhabitants dependent on the river for mobility and survival, such as residents of Juazeiro and Petrolina, on the banks of this waterway, say that the task will not be easy. The former is home to a port that has never been used. In the latter the port does function, but has become increasingly harder for the only company still operating in the place, Icofort. Abandoned train stations and roads full of weeds complement the scene.

“When there were no roads, the river was the only link between local settlements,” recalls Commander Bartolomeu Borges, son, grandson and great-grandson of ship captains. “Nowadays navigation is very difficult.”

" For some decades now, institutions related to transportation only engaged in road construction; they are now seeing the need to integrate them to railroads and waterways "

Lincoln Flor

Transportation expert at the World Bank

A World Bank analysis revealed that, despite the fact that grain transportation logistics is easier over water, “the volume of cargo transported across the São Francisco is modest compared to the growth potential of local agriculture. The western region of Bahia (state) produced 6.7 million metric tons during the 2010-11 season, but only 0.7% of that went through the São Francisco.”

Moreover, the droughts and sedimentation that went on in recent decades have caused the river to gradually lose its capacity to carry cargo ships.

“In the 2012/2013 season we dispatched 51,000 metric tons of cotton seeds; in 2013/2014 we barely managed 23,000,” Marcelo Teixeira, Logistics Director at Icofort, compares.

As a precautionary measure, and while river conditions are assessed for next season, the company is preparing to transport the product (used in the textile, electronics and paper pulp industries) overland.

This is a complex task: 63.2% of northeastern roads are classified as regular, bad or very bad, according to a study undertaken by the National Transportation Confederation (CNT, in Portuguese) in 2011. Furthermore, a third of the accidents that took place in the region between 2007 and 2011 involved a cargo vehicle. Armed robbery is also frequent.

Because of this, this company and others are eagerly awaiting the results of an action plan being prepared by the World Bank and the São Francisco Valley and Parnaiba Development Company (Codevasf, in Portuguese), among others, and to be concluded in June.

“This type of plan shows that there is a change in mentality taking place not just in Brazil but in Latin America: for some decades now, institutions related to transportation only engaged in road construction; they are now seeing the need to integrate them to railroads and waterways,” says Lincoln Flor, transportation expert at the World Bank.

It is not yet possible to forecast the future impact of these actions in numbers, although government experts, the private sector and international organizations agree on the need to act rapidly, not only in the São Francisco, but in other Brazilian and Latin American rivers.

The country ranked 65th in the latest Logistics Performance Index of 2014, behind countries such as Chile, Mexico or India, due to infrastructure problems, among other issues.