Rainy summer: what governments can do to avoid tragedies in risk areas

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Summer began on Wednesday (21) with a forecast of above-average rainfall in most parts of Brazil, according to Inmet (National Institute of Meteorology).

With the exception of the South, the agency expects that all other regions will have precipitation in greater volume than they normally register in the hottest season of the year.

Historically, heavy rains have great potential for destruction in a country with 9.5 million people living in areas vulnerable to landslides, floods and other weather disasters.

Data for this population are an estimate released in February by the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts on Natural Disasters (Cemaden), an agency linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

The calculation was based on data from the 2010 Census, which identified 28,000 risk areas in 825 municipalities.

In this scenario, disasters and tragedies during weather phenomena are common in Brazil. Last summer, for example, they were repeated in several states.

Between last December and January 2022, at least 57 people died in floods and landslides during storms in Bahia and Minas Gerais. Hundreds of cities entered a state of emergency, and thousands were left homeless.

In February, 18 people died in a landslide in Franco da Rocha, a city in the metropolitan region of São Paulo – other cities in the region also had deaths. In the same month, more than 230 people died in Petrópolis, in the mountainous region of Rio.

Most of the victims of these tragedies are poor families who, with no alternative where to live, build their homes in areas such as hillsides, along streams and springs.

For experts, however, the rains are not to blame for these tragedies, but rather a series of structural problems in the country, such as the housing deficit, lack of urban planning, deficient Civil Defense and neglect by the public authorities.

What could be done to reduce the risks for the population living in these places? BBC News Brasil heard from two experts on the subject, who pointed out emergency measures and long-term public policies that can help to avoid further tragedies.

alert system

For Alessandra Corsi, a researcher at the Technological Research Institute (IPT), an agency linked to the government of São Paulo, in the short term, the priority should be “avoiding deaths”.

“On an emergency basis, the government must monitor rainfall data to inform the population about potential risks, in addition to mapping vulnerable areas”, he says.

In São Paulo, the IPT is one of the bodies that carry out these mappings, always at the request of city halls.

“In some cases of higher risk, the Civil Defense needs to act to remove the families, with permission from the Justice. Some people prefer to stay and can sign a term assuming responsibility”, says Corsi.

With this monitoring, the government must inform the population when the rain intensifies and the risks increase.

There are several services that send alert messages to the citizen’s cell phone. To register in the Federal Civil Defense system, for example, you need to send an SMS with your region’s zip code to the number 40199.

Corsi explains that the State of São Paulo divides the areas by “rainfall volume thresholds”, for example.

In some points, such as Baixada Santista, this limit is 80 millimeters of rainfall in a period of three days. When this threshold is exceeded, the region becomes alert to landslides and floods.

In these cases, the municipal Civil Defense sends agents to monitor vulnerable areas and check river levels and earth movement. House the risk of disaster increases, residents can be removed.

But it doesn’t always work that way, says Corsi. “In Brazil there are municipalities with a small technical staff in Civil Defense, sometimes there is only one person and he is not able to handle the job.”

According to her, landslides —or “slides”, as they are also called— are the most dangerous phenomena because they are very fast and have great destructive power.

housing policies

For Isadora Guerreiro, professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo (USP), the government must always qualify risk areas and not just count them. “There are scales of risk, more dangerous places and others where it is possible to mitigate the danger”, she explains.

According to her, governments should include the local population in decision-making and in small works, such as containment of slopes, construction of walls, improvements in houses and cleaning of streams. “The communities themselves have been living with these risks for a long time, they know the areas and forms of mitigation”, she says.

On the other hand, the urban planner believes that removing vulnerable families from their homes can have a negative effect if the action is not accompanied by housing policies.

“When there are no housing alternatives, eviction can create more social problems, because these families are not going to disappear. Many move from hills to the banks of streams or even to the street. Forced eviction increases vulnerability and creates other risks”, he explains. Warrior.

In November, a decision by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) once again authorized collective removals of irregular occupations that were prohibited due to the pandemic.

According to the Zero Eviction campaign, which brings together organizations and social movements that act against forced removals, 191,000 families are threatened with collective evictions in the country – 65,000 of them in São Paulo.

The decision of the STF came at a time when the government of President Jair Bolsonaro (PL) reduced by 95% the funds for the Casa Verde e Amarela housing program for next year. Only BRL 34.1 million is planned for the program in 2023.

The president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), promised to resume the Minha Casa, Minha Vida program, one of the showcases of PT administrations in the area.

For Isadora Guerreiro, housing programs are not restricted to the construction of social housing. “There is a range of policies that can be used, such as rent assistance, urbanization of slums and renovations of old buildings”, she says.

The urban planner believes that blaming natural phenomena for tragedies is not an alternative, even more so at a time of worsening climate change on the planet.

“Risk is a conditioning factor between the environment and human interventions. With climate change, the tendency is for these disasters to increase, but this is not the fault of the rain, but because there was a historical process that led and continues to lead to people to more vulnerable areas”, he says.

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