It happens every single summer, in many cities of South-Southeast Brazil. The rain season literally destroys whole communities, namely those installed on river margins or on steep slopes. Those who cannot afford to move to less risky areas.
Once I interviewed this lady who lived by the Tamanduateí river, whose margins are paved in such a way that the overflow has nowhere to go but into people’s lives.
She described how her husband carried her into the house when they got married – not because he was romantic, but because the first floor was flooded.
Then she showed me how she managed to survive under water – she installed several platforms to keep the phone and the TV out of reach and a pulley to lift the furniture whenever it rained strong.
Two huge tragedies in the last few weeks showed that even very touristic cities are not at bay. In Angra dos Reis, the resort in the state of Rio known for its hundreds of islands and yacht clubs, a landslide destroyed an upscale pousada (a small resort) and killed at least 30 people.
In São Luiz do Paraitinga, a cute little town in the state of São Paulo, known for its traditional music and cachaça (sugar cane alcoholic beverage), at least 50 buildings in the historic part of the city may fall. The two main churches, the city hall, the archives, the library – all of them were destroyed.
These episodes aren’t accidental. Every year, specialists come up with explanations that combine the following causes:
* Expansion of housing projects and shanty towns into areas that are regularly flooded (cheap and available land). Local governments seem to have little power to refrain these settlements and sometimes even stimulate them, emitting building permits where no one should ever build.
* Deforestation of river margins and slopes. Once there are no roots holding the mud, it slides to the bottom of the waterways, reducing their capacity of absorbing the water.
* Making the soil impermeable by cementing every inch of free land. Once the water hits the cement, it has nowhere to go, but into the buildings. By the way, this is a huge cultural problem: everywhere you go in Brazil, poor or rich neighborhoods, you will notice homeowners choose to cement their yards and driveways, removing all the vegetation.
* Bad planning and miscalculations of hydro power dams. These constructions frequently change the course of rivers and remove lots of vegetation, unbalancing the water cycle.
* Climate change, that makes the weather unpredictable and generates more storms in regions where they were not so frequent.
All these causes don’t seem to get any better, year after year. Next Summer, Brazilians will be enjoying the beach – except for those that will be mourning their dead and their losses.
Brazilian born, French citizen, married to an American, Regina Scharf is the ultimate globetrotter. She graduated in Biology and Journalism from USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and has worked for Folha de S. Paulo, Gazeta Mercantil and Veja magazine as well as Radio France Internationale. Since 2004 she has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the US. She authored or co-authored several books in Portuguese on environmental issues and was honored by the 2002 Reuters-IUCN Press award for Latin America and by the 2004 Prêmio Ethos. You can read more by her at Deep Brazil – www.deepbrazil.com.