What Experts Are Saying About In Brazil Unprecedented Flooding May Foes

Vitor Martinez is a musician and community organiser who is 25 years old.

What Experts Are Saying About In Brazil Unprecedented Flooding May Foes
Nelson What Experts Are Saying About In Brazil Unprecedented Flooding May FoesAlmeida / AFP via Getty Images

He lives in Porto Alegre, which is the city of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Martinez’s neighbourhood is right next to Guaíba Lake, which is where most of Porto Alegre’s best sights are located. On a sunny late March day in the 80s Fahrenheit, people rode bikes, ran, and walked along the path that goes around the lake. A mall on the bottom floor of a brand-new Hilton DoubleTree hotel in the middle of the neighbourhood was packed with people shopping.

A few miles away, more than 23,000 people from all over the world met at a conference centre close to the city’s ancient downtown to talk about the future of business and technology in South America. Martinez said that the well-kept and wealthy Porto Alegre of the past is now a distant dream.

A week of nonstop rain dumped inches of water on southern Brazil last Friday. Guaíba Lake, which is actually a river that gets water from five other rivers, broke its walls and flooded Porto Alegre. Large parts of the city were flooded, including the historic downtown area and the local airport. The floods also did terrible damage to the rest of Rio Grande do Sul. As of Thursday, flooding and landslides had hurt 1.45 million people in 417 of the state’s 497 cities. There have been 113 deaths and more than 140 people are still missing. Almost 100,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged, and 155,000 people have been forced to move or are homeless. It started to rain more on Friday, and Guaíba Lake had just started to shrink.

Read More: Houston is experiencing “life-threatening” floods due to extreme weather in Texas.

“In Brazil, there is no other crisis like the one we are going through at the state level,” said Jonatas Rubert, another Porto Alegre local, Thursday evening. “There is a huge amount of fear about what will happen in the next few days.”

Martinez has been hiding out in his small flat with his mum, dad and grandparents, who had to leave their homes because the floods were rising. Because the flat was on higher ground, it didn’t get too badly flooded. Floods destroyed homes in Porto Alegre and other parts of the state. People who lost their homes are now living on little food and clean water. He said, “We don’t know how many people have died yet because the water is so high.”

It looks like the flooding in Rio Grande do Sul will be one of the worst natural tragedies in Brazil’s history. Thursday, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, announced a 50 billion reais ($9.7 billion) plan of aid and development projects that would be used right away in southern Brazil. He called it a historic investment and the “first” round of aid.

Aerial view of the flooded Beira-Rio stadium of the Brazilian football team Internacional in Porto Alegre. Anselmo Cunha / AFP via Getty Images
© Provided by Grist
Aerial view of the flooded Beira-Rio stadium of the Brazilian football team Internacional in Porto Alegre. Anselmo Cunha / AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Grist

A disaster of this size was caused by many things. Climate change and El Niño, a natural weather event that changes ocean and atmosphere conditions on a regular basis, are seen by experts as the main causes of how bad and how quickly the floods started. But decisions made by the local, state, and federal governments in Brazil over the past ten years have also made it harder for communities in Rio Grande do Sul to recover from the devastating effects of flooding. These decisions have also made it harder for humanitarian groups to help those who are still suffering, and they have made it harder for Brazil as a whole to adapt to the worsening effects of climate change.

Read More: The water covers a part of an old golf course.

Aerial view of a bridge partially destroyed by floods in Encantado, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil on May 5, 2024. Gustavo Ghisleni / AFP / Getty Images
© Provided by Grist
Aerial view of a bridge partially destroyed by floods in Encantado, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil on May 5, 2024. Gustavo Ghisleni / AFP / Getty Images © Provided by Grist

Experts told Grist that the huge size and cost of the floods may change the way Brazilians think about environmental policies and climate change, especially adaptation, which means making changes to systems that can protect against future effects.

“This is going to change the way voters think,” said Carlos R. S. Milani, senior fellow at the government-run Brazilian Scientific Development Council and the think tank Brazilian Centre for International Relations. The accident may or may not change the choices their elected officials make is still up in the air.

Read More: Heavy rain and snow in California might cause floods.

Soldiers from the Brazilian Air Force prepare donations to be sent to flood victims in Rio Grande do Sul at Brasilia Air Base, Brazil on May 10, 2024. Evaristo Sa / AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Grist

This year, Rio Grande do Sul has been hit by several big floods. This is one of the effects that climate scientists say will happen in Brazil and South America as a whole because of climate change. Brazil has had a lot of bad weather in the past year, though floods is just one example. In late 2023, rivers in the Amazon jungle dropped to all-time lows. At the same time, Brazil’s temperatures broke records by reaching 138 degrees F during one of nine heatwaves that happened that year. A 23-year-old woman died of a heart attack after hours of standing in record-breaking heat in line for a Taylor Swift show. Rio de Janeiro set a new record for the hottest day ever in March, with 144 degrees F.

The campaign director for Greenpeace Brazil, Raissa Ferreira, said, “I have no doubt that climate change has something to do with it.” There is more of the greenhouse gas effect now.

El Niño, which started last year and is still going on this year, has made bad weather worse all over Brazil, including the drought in the Amazon and more rain in the south of the country. Scientists are looking into whether the El Niño’s strength, which could be the biggest in 70 years, is also a sign of climate change getting worse.

Read More: Rising Waters, Sinking City: Scientific Confirmation of New York’s Subsidence.

A ferry boat stranded due to drought in Manaus, a city in the Brazilian Amazon, last year. Michael Dantas / AFP via Getty Images
© Provided by Grist
A ferry boat stranded due to drought in Manaus, a city in the Brazilian Amazon, last year. Michael Dantas / AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Grist

Weather changes over the past year shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Brazil’s government. The government of Dilma Rousseff, who was president at the time, ordered a strategy paper in 2014 called “Brazil 2040: Scenarios and alternatives for adapting to climate change.” The story was accurate, but too cautious: It said that many of the effects of climate change would happen more than 15 years early, including very bad floods. In the end, the center-left Rousseff administration buried the study, and no other government has picked up the work since. Because of this, Brazil, which is the sixth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and a rising world power, doesn’t really have a plan to adjust to climate change. “We need to adapt to climate change,” Ferreira said, “but we don’t see any good signs in Brazil that that is a political priority.”

In the meantime, far-right political parties in Brazil have spent years tearing down environmental laws, ignoring well-established climate science, and supporting the country’s growing agribusiness industry over its natural resources, which are in danger. The plan has strong support from the public, even though the country’s left-wing and Indigenous groups are strongly against it.

Rio Grande do Sul depends a lot on farming, especially rice and peas. They voted twice, and both times, by large margins, for Jair Bolsonaro, who used to be president of Brazil and is a strong climate denier. Both the mayor of Porto Alegre and the governor of Rio Grande do Sul are right-wing politicians who have taken money out of the city and state budgets for things like civil defence and the environment.

In 2023, Sebastião Melo, the mayor of the city, didn’t spend any money to improve the flood systems. In 2021 and 2022, he also cut the local flood prevention programme by a lot. Porto Alegre could have built walls and other structures to keep river water out of the city, set up early warning systems for neighbourhoods that were likely to flood, and planted mangroves and plants to help soak up flood water. This safety measure wasn’t taken at all. In the meantime, Governor Eduardo Leite of Rio Grande do Sul’s 2024 budget put less than 50,000 reais, or less than $10,000, into disaster planning, evacuations, recovery, and other civil defence tasks.

Aerial view of floods in Eldorado do Sul, a city in Rio Grande do Sul. Carlos Fabal / AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Grist

A 31-year-old filmmaker in Porto Alegre called Giordano Gio said, “The word on the street is that the governor left 50,000 reais for the possibility of a disaster like this.” “This is about how much a Honda Civic costs.” This week, a poll asked Brazilians if they thought that improvements in infrastructure could have made the recent flooding less likely.

It’s not clear what will happen next in Rio Grande do Sul or in Brazil in general after the rains. Lula’s government was trying to fix the federal budget, lower the national debt, and put money back into Brazil’s middle class before the floods. The situation could make those plans less clear. He said that the storms will have a big effect on inflation and food prices in Brazil. Mauricio Santoro is a political scientist and professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. The Lula government is in a lot of trouble right now, and the president already has a lot on his plate. Lula’s top concern and one of these problems is slowing down the fast loss of trees in the Amazon rainforest. Most of the destruction in the rainforest is done to make more land available for farming. This is what causes half of Brazil’s carbon emissions.

The government money that is coming to Rio Grande do Sul will help rebuild the state, but people in Porto Alegre and experts that Grist talked to are wondering what will happen next in terms of being ready for climate change. A filmmaker named Gio said, “Lula was elected with the help of a large group of people who lean right.” Only a quarter of the seats in Brazil’s House and Senate are held by left-wing groups. This makes it harder for Lula to pass laws about climate change. Gio said, “There are a lot of political things going on that could affect” possible climate policy.

In the next few months, Brazil will be hit by more natural disasters. This year’s high temperatures are likely to make the drought in the Amazon even worse. The states that surround the jungle are some of the poorest in the country. Rio Grande do Sul is one of the richest states in Brazil, so it will be able to recover from something like this faster than most other parts of the country. “If this could happen in a more wealthy part of the country, what will happen next in a very poor one?” Milani asked. “Being able to change and adapt is much less.”

What will happen next? is a question that will stay with us long after the floods have gone down. “As a political scientist, I think this event in Rio Grande do Sul will make climate change and the environment very important issues in many local elections across the country this year,” Santoro said. Right now, this is more of a political fight than anything else.

Martinez has been working at his community’s soup kitchen in Porto Alegre and working with other community organisers to come up with ways to handle the huge amount of relief aid they have been getting from all over the world. For him, seeing people in his neighbourhood help each other has been a small bit of good in a terrible situation. He said, “Local governments have left us.” “We’re not going to stand by and let our neighbourhoods sink apart.”

The original title of this story from Grist was “In Brazil, unprecedented flooding may force a political reckoning on May 10, 2024.”

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