Could Brazil’s landslides have been prevented?

18 Jan

Since the Rio de Janeiro region of Brazil was hit by severe flooding and landslides on 12th January after a prolonged period of heavy rainfall, more than 13,000 people have lost or abandoned their homes. From the towns of Nova Friburgo, Teresopolis, Petropolis, Sumidouro and Sao Jose do Vale do Rio Preto the death toll has reached 676. The rescue effort has been criticised as people have been forced to wait so long for food, medicines and water it is feared they may resort to drinking the muddy flood water. In Teresopolis the city council has been forced to bury the dead before they have been identified as the mortuaries are filled to capacity. Some remote mountainous areas have been cut off for five days, and it is feared that more bodies could be found there.

Teresopolis after a landslide on 12th January

But could these floods, or the level of destruction caused by them, have been prevented? Brazil’s rainy season is often aggressive with rivers bursting their banks and a certain number of deaths. In January last year heavy rains killed dozens of people living just south of the towns currently affected. More planning and management might not have prevented this disaster, as a month’s worth of rain fell in just eight hours, but it surely would have limited the number killed and left homeless.

Residents walk past destroyed cars in Teresopolis

According to the BBC, Brazil’s Civil Defence Agency told the UN in November that the government had been unable to implement recommended prevention measures such as a warning system and new infrastructure in high risk areas. And there are many of those areas; it’s estimated some five million Brazilians live in about 800 areas which are considered at risk of mudslides and floods, most situated at the base of the coastal Serra do Mar mountain range which runs along the coast. Speaking to the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, a top civil defence official, Humberto Vianna, admitted that “there is a culture in Brazil of waiting for something to happen and then responding to it”.

A destroyed house in Teresopolis

Brazil’s new President Dilma Rousseff has pledged to prevent future disasters but it is expected to be another four years before a nationwide alert system is in place. In the mean time experts have warned that the risk of fatal landslides increases each year as the population grows. No measures are in place to limit the amount of housing built in these precarious areas, and a great deal of this is nothing more than shanty houses easily destroyed by natural forces. It seems nothing has been done to fortify the homes of the poor who, according to some sources, have been forced to occupy the most dangerous ground on steep slopes or right next to rivers. According to Rio de Janeiro Governor Sergio Cabral, local governments are to blame for allowing poor building and illegal occupations. He has highlighted the ‘humble people’ as the most affected by the landslides.

We may see further deaths, should the government not act to prevent future floods and landslides in this vulnerable part of the country. After the government cut its disaster-prevention and management budget by 18% it seems unlikely that funds will be spent on an infrastructure to avoid future disasters like this one. This challenge is one of Ms Rousseff’s first chances to prove her worth as premier after less than a month in government. The world’s media will be waiting if she cannot rise to it.

Image 1: Totallycoolpix

Image 2: globalnews

Image 3: globalnews

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