Waterways cast aside in Brazil’s infrastructure plans

. Feb 18, 2020
waterways brazil Photo: Leonardo Pepi/Min. Infrastructure

The year 2020 is deemed to be a crucial one for Brazilian infrastructure. Here at The Brazilian Report, we have covered the government’s plans for selling off a number of concessions in the highway, airport, and railway sectors, but one facet of infrastructure has been so far overlooked: the country’s internal system of waterways.

</p> <p>While Brazil has a domestic waterway network of 63,000 kilometers, only 31 percent of it is actually in use by transport infrastructure. Even so, the volume of cargo moved around the country by waterways grew 34.8 percent between 2010 and 2018, reaching 101.5 million tons.</p> <p>Last year, however, that total dropped to just over 97 million tons, focused mainly on ores (22.6 million tons), seeds (21 million tons), and cereals (17.5 million tons).</p> <p>In all, Brazil has 12 hydrographic regions, but only six are used for cargo transportation. Among this half dozen, just two—Amazônia and Tocantins-Araguaia, measuring 16,000 and 1,400 kilometers, respectively—make up 95 percent of the cargo transported.</p> <p>According to the National Transport Confederation (CNT), these unused waterways have not been properly adapted to the function of cargo transport, or their water levels are too low.</p> <p>In comparison to other continental-sized countries, the proportion of economically used waterways is just 2.3 kilometers for every 1,000 square-kilometers of land in Brazil. Meanwhile, China and the U.S. have 11.5 and 4.2 km per 1,000 sq km, respectively.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1411561"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Low investment, high legislation</h2> <p>Between 2011 and 2018, <a href="">according to the CNT</a>, Brazilian investments in waterways amounted to 10.6 percent of the amount provided for in the National Logistics and Transport Plan and Strategic Waterway Plan. Looking at the data from 2001 until today, the total which has actually been invested makes up only 53 percent of the budget, with a peak in 2009 (BRL 831.79 million) and a drop of 80 percent in 2018 (BRL 173.7 million).</p> <p>While also being underused, Brazil&#8217;s waterway network is also over-regulated by authorities responsible for the sector. Since 1907, more than 20 authorities have managed Brazilian waterways. Currently, there are more than 40 regulatory entities at state and federal levels.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1411612"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>The beginnings of waterway transport in Brazil</h2> <p>Despite this current scenario of abandonment, the history of Brazilian waterway infrastructure dates back to the country&#8217;s discovery, when Portuguese colonizers used rivers to transport cargo and people to newly discovered villages or territories. The first physical plan for the sector came in 1869, which allowed for some routes to be auctioned off to the private sector.</p> <p>In <a href="">Brazil&#8217;s First Republic</a> (1889–1930), the federal government enacted a national plan to reorganize the waterway sector. But the technological advances of the time promoted by the industrial revolution—mainly the steam train and then automobiles—reduced the economic viability of rivers as transport routes.</p> <h2>Cost-effectiveness of waterway transport</h2> <p>According to researchers Fabiano Pompermayer, Carlos Álvares Neto, and Jean de Paula, the <a href="">total cost of cargo transportation via waterways</a> varies between BRL 20 and BRL 30 per ton, while the amount charged on railways is BRL 57 per ton. If twice the annual volume were transported, costs may vary from BRL 18 to BRL 24 per ton, against BRL 35 per ton for trains. This comes down to the increased capacity of river vessels, which can transport up to 90 times more than a single train carriage.</p> <p>Even so, Brazilian waterways account for only 14 percent of the total transport in the country. To change this scenario, the CNT estimates that a minimum investment of BRL 166 billion will be needed.</p> <p>One of the main infrastructure changes would be building locks to facilitate navigation. According to Ipea, this is the most expensive aspect of waterway transport and the cost of sending cargo would nearly double, depending on the number of locks needed.</p> <p>One of the proposed solutions to mitigate this downside would be for hydroelectric plants to include the construction of locks in their building projects. Navy commander Wanderley Nunes states that this extra endeavor would make up just 7 percent of the total value of building these energy generation plants, however, if the lock were to be constructed afterward, the amount would correspond to 42 percent of the initial project.</p> <p>Brazil currently has 17 locks, and the federal government administers eight of them. This is a faithful representation of the current situation of Brazil&#8217;s internal waterway sector, in which there is only one aquatic network compatible with international standards—the Paraná-Tietê—and it is operated by private company Hidrovias Brasil S/A.

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Brenno Grillo

Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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