Brazil's deadly mudslides are a result of climate change neglect
RIO DE JANEIRO, (AP) -- This week's landslides in Petropolis left homes damaged and families separated, scarred hillsides, and hearts. At least 120 people were killed and almost as many are missing.
It was all predictable and, to a certain extent, avoidable.
This mountain city in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro has been ravaged by rapid urbanization, poor planning and lack of funding for subsidized housing. Researchers, as well as former and current public servants, told The Associated Press that little has been done to address repeated warnings about mountainside construction.
Evidence suggests that climate change is increasing the intensity of rainfall. Peril has increased not only for Petropolis but also elsewhere.
In the Serra do Mar region, more than 1,500 people have been killed by similar landslides over the past decade. Since 1981, there have been over 400 deaths in Petropolis from heavy storms. Antonio Guerra is a geography professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He has been studying weather-related disasters in Petropolis since almost 30 years. Guerra has seen dozens of places where lives and houses were destroyed by floodwaters and investigated the root causes. "Rain is the greatest villain, but poor land use is the main cause." Guerra stated that there is a complete lack of planning.
The haphazard sprawl of Petropolis is a recent phenomenon. Petropolis, named after a former Brazilian Emperor and located in the mountains 40 miles from Rio de Janeiro, was one of the first planned cities in Brazil.
The city's waterways were home to stately homes built by earlier settlers. In recent decades, the city's wealth has attracted newcomers from less-developed regions. The population reached around 300,000. Many people don't realize the dangers of building small homes in tight spaces on mountain sides. Guerra stated that many people have built without permissions, because they don't know the risks. People forget about disasters as they build houses in unsafe areas.
Yara Valverde, the local environmental regulator, led the office for nearly two decades. She created the first hydrogeological risk alarm system in 2001. Plastic bottles were placed in neighborhoods to collect rainwater. Once they reached a certain level sirens were blared.
The program was not funded by the government so she recruited volunteers.
Guerra, along with a group of geologists and civil engineers, mapped the risky areas in Petropolis between 2007 and 2010. They then sent their findings to Petropolis. In January 2010, heavy rains caused landslides which claimed almost 1,000 lives, with 71 of those in Petropolis. The city recognized the problem. Authorities noted in 2017 that 18% of the city, which included approximately 20,000 households, was at very or high risk. Another 7,000 people would need to be relocated according to the city's plan. It called for affordable housing and a halt in new construction in high-risk areas.
Guerra, Valverde and non-governmental organizations, as well as residents, say that little has been done in order to realize this vision.
Petropolis has very little space for safe, new construction. It is also difficult to move residents out of their homes. Rio state was already struggling to overcome a three-year, crushing recession before the pandemic.
Folha de S. Paulo in Brazil reported that Rio's state spent less than half the money earmarked to its disaster response program.
Repeated requests by the city for information about how many families were relocated since 2017 and other details regarding the plan were not answered.
Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, tried to shift the blame by pointing out that the budget for preventive actions is very limited. He said Friday, Petropolis, "A lot of the times, we don't have any way to protect against all that might happen," in response to widespread outrage.
The region is known for heavy rains, particularly during the Southern Hemisphere summer between December and March. Experts say that the rains are becoming heavier due to climate change.
Since the beginning of the year, heavy rains have hit Southeastern Brazil. Between mudslides that occurred in Minas Gerais in January and Sao Paulo in February, more than 40 people died. This occurred after months of drought in Brazil, the worst in nine centuries. The southeast saw hydroelectric reservoirs drop to levels that raised concerns about power rationing.
"They are all weather extremes and occur very close together. Climate change can also increase the frequency of these events and we are clearly observing it," Marcelo Seluchi said, a coordinator at government's National Center for Monitoring and Early Warning of Natural Disasters. It's not about focusing on a single event; it's about the whole.
Seluchi's Center sent out a "very strong" alert to Petropolis on the eve the latest landslide. It warned of heavy rains that could have "a significant impact on the population".
The center said that 259 millimeters (or 10 inches) of rain fell in three hours the next day -- the highest rainfall since 1932.
Rio Gov. spoke at a Wednesday press conference. Claudio Castro stated that the deluge was "totally predictable." He did not comment on the possibility of more deaths and destruction.
Several residents claimed that they received text messages from authorities warning them of the approaching storm. Others claimed they received no notice. Many districts were exempted because sirens are concentrated in the middle of the city.
Multiple requests for comment from the AP were not answered by the city.
Fernando Araujo (46), said that the government has ignored Vila Felipe his entire life.
"As a resident here for 46 years, it's clear that once the sun rises and the weather stabilizes, they won't be coming here any more and paying attention to us." They will do it on their own and rebuild.
Valverde, an ex-environmental regulator who established the risk alert system, stated that many cities in the area lack the political will to confront the problem.
She said, "They claim they care, but when it comes time to make decisions to remove houses from risk zones or prevent new construction, they give in."
"They must be held responsible. This will happen again and again if they don't.