Latin America Advisor

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What Will Help Brazil Recover From Deadly Flooding?

Devastating floods have left more than 150 people dead and hundreds of thousands of people displaced, while causing billions of dollars in damage, in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state.

Catastrophic flooding in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state has killed more than 150 people and has left more than half a million people displaced. Experts say the disaster could set off one of the largest cases of climate-related migration in Brazil’s recent history. The government on May 9 announced a roughly $10 billion aid package to address the disaster and help victims. Has Brazil’s government gone far enough in addressing the tragedy? What other policy initiatives might be needed to ameliorate the current crisis? How will internal migration sparked by the flood affect Brazil, and does Rio Grande do Sul portend coming trends in climate-related migration? What policies and initiatives need to be implemented to ensure flooding and rains like these do not cause such destruction again?

Natalie Unterstell, president of the Talanoa Institute: “Any investment made without resilience is a bad investment. The government’s recent $10 billion aid package is significant, yet it primarily addresses immediate relief and reconstruction. The role of the government at this moment is to provide personnel and resources, but the main focus should have been on pre-disaster actions, which have already passed. The catastrophic flooding highlights Brazil’s urgent need for comprehensive climate adaptation strategies at the local and national levels. In that regard, the largest infrastructure program in Brazil, called the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), aims to invest 1.7 trillion reais ($400 billion, roughly) but contains no forward-looking climate resilience elements. Within the so-called ‘Resilient and Sustainable Cities’ axis of the PAC, which relies instead on traditional measures like drainage and slope containment, only 15.3 billion reais is allocated for disaster prevention, which is minimal. These projects do not consider future climate scenarios, making the current PAC non-resilient to both current and future climates. To better address such crises, Brazil must invest in resilient infrastructure, including improved drainage systems and flood barriers, and enforce zoning laws to prevent construction in high-risk areas. Enhanced early warning systems are crucial for timely evacuations. Additionally, reforestation and wetland restoration can improve natural water absorption and reduce runoff. The internal migration resulting from this flood will strain urban infrastructure, disrupt local economies and potentially lead to social tensions. Policies to support displaced individuals’ integration, including access to housing, education and employment, are essential. Investing in rural development programs and fostering regional cooperation to address migration flows and share best practices in disaster management are necessary steps, which I hear are planned by the state government of Rio Grande do Sul. Now we hope that the state will get the support it needs, both for response to the crisis and its recuperation.”

Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape Institute and principal of SecDev: “Although the Rio Grande do Sul floods are the state’s worst natural catastrophe in 80 years, Brazil is no stranger to mass displacement. Over the past two decades, more than eight million Brazilians have fled or migrated due to storms, floods, wildfires, drought and sea level rise. In 2023, roughly 745,000 people were displaced by weather-related events combined with El Niño. The truth is that no one actually knows how many Brazilians are moving, because there’s no centralized registration system in place to count them. Rising climate mobility not only exposes the perils of a changing climate, but also Brazil’s unpreparedness for the coming storms. The decision to relocate isn’t only motivated by increasingly intense and frequent climate shocks and stresses. It’s also a result of socioeconomic risks such as food insecurity, poverty, inequality and access to basic services. Brazil faces a future of rising temperatures, increased rainfall and worsening droughts, and roughly half its municipalities are ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate risks. Yet, just 14 of Brazil’s 26 states have prepared climate adaptation strategies. Brazil needs a national strategy and a coordinated interagency response that is commensurate with the threat. Brazil could draw inspiration from Colombia, which could soon approve a ‘climate mobility’ law specifying the rights of climate-affected populations, proposing a unified registry to monitor population movements, and assigning responsibilities for action. At a minimum, the forthcoming National Plan on Climate Change and Green Climate Fund should include provisions and pilots to address climate mobility. Brazil’s National Adaptation Plan is outdated and needs an upgrade. The National Center for Monitoring and Alert of Natural Disasters should monitor climate mobility as part of its mandate. Brazil can also improve its early warning and response capabilities and invest in ecosystem-based adaptation strategies including infrastructure upgrades in flood-prone and coastal communities, expand access to drought resistant crops and livestock, retrain populations and relocate people (and even cities) most at risk.”

Jose Perez, research assistant at The Ohio State University: “Rio Grande do Sul state suffered from severe drought since 2021, and now it suffers from extreme rain and flooding. What we are witnessing are the ravishes of climate change. Despite these recent cycles of drought and flooding, the state and municipal governments have shown little zeal for the creation of more robust disaster preparedness and relief plans to face climate change, aggravating the situation. There have not been any serious efforts to reinforce or expand the walls that protect Porto Alegre from the Guaíba River, or to prepare low-laying neighborhoods with more shelters, evacuation routes and supplies. There has also been a lack of adequate planning for the cities along the Taquari River valley, even though many are built directly on the flood plain and will now have to be moved. This will probably play out like Hurricane Katrina, where New Orleans saw considerable depopulation after the storm and a slow recovery process. Most of these climate refugees will probably move out of Rio Grande do Sul, and the Porto Alegre metropolitan area, toward Santa Catarina, Paraná, São Paulo and Mato Grosso, where they have family or friends. Furthermore, these affected areas were home to large communities of Venezuelan, Haitian, Senegalese and other migrant/refugee groups. This means that for many of the flood’s victims it will be the second time in their lives they find themselves as refugees and have to restart their lives from nothing. Even though only a state within Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul is territorially comparable to Italy and its population before the storm was comparable to that of Greece or Portugal. Therefore, it is important to underscore the magnitude and intensity of this climate change disaster.”

Eduardo Viola, professor of politics and international relations at the University of São Paulo and the Getulio Vargas Foundation: “The Brazilian government never invested in adapting to climate change; the focus has been on mitigation, with ups and downs. The Lula administration is reconstructing environmental policy after the tragic Bolsonaro years. The heavy rain and flooding that started this month became catastrophic, affecting 80 percent of the population of the state of Rio Grande do Sul and particularly the capital Porto Alegre. This is the most catastrophic climate extreme in Brazilian history, with some similarities to Hurricane Katrina. With the advance of the waters, people felt abandoned because there were insufficient public resources and government response in the first days. After that, federal resources were mobilized, particularly the armed forces, which have a very important role in the most difficult rescue operations. The tragedy also promoted a strong wave of societal solidarity nationally. The federal government has approved a significant budget for dealing with the emergency and reconstruction. Early estimates say that the cost of the public infrastructure reconstruction will be between $20 billion and $30 billion. The cost of rebuilding private property could be much higher. Around 80,000 people whose houses destroyed are living in improvised public housing and are now climate refugees. Around 520,000 people are living temporally in relatives’ and friends’ houses, waiting for the lowering of the waters, and some of them could also became refugees. Various levels of government have announced urgent temporary towns for the refugees. Some might also migrate out of state. Brazil doesn’t have experience with climate refugees in those numbers, so it’ll be a big test. Some neighborhoods and towns should be relocated to higher areas. It will be necessary to pursue an immediate strengthening of the civil defense with resources and qualified personnel, but the process of reducing vulnerability and adaptation will take some years.”

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