This year’s drought in Brazil has made it difficult to make use of the Sa~o Francisco River to transport dry bulk consignments from the ‘new agricultural frontier’ of western Bahia in ports in the north-east. The suspension of services, whilst due mainly to drought, also reflects a lack of investment in the waterway.

The last company able to make use of the river stopped services as long ago as May, with local producers forced to dispatch consignments by road.

Just a single barge used the river in 2014, transporting 2,600 tonnes of cotton seed between Muque´m de Sao Francisco and Juazeiro. In the event, the trip took 30 days, ten more than average, because of silting and low draught, prompting the total withdrawal of services.

Icofort originally began operating on the river in 2006, being 20% cheaper than parallel highway services. However, after having initially invested $12 million, the company began operating at a loss of $950,000 annually. It has now switched all consignments to road, with the loss of 120 jobs.

The last major dredging of the river was undertaken in 2011, but subsequent programmes have never been implemented, with no maintenance dredging at all. This has left an operational draught of 1.1m, whereas a minimum draught of 1.5m is necessary for barge operation. In September, a start was made on some maintenance dredging in 21 key points over a distance of 320km, but has not come in time to save the existing service.