Brazil: A Tragedy of Local and Global Dimensions

Rio de Janeiro – The people who live in the favela of Guararapes are probably unaware that the heavy rains that forced them to flee their homes were caused by a phenomenon that is affecting the whole planet: global warming.

But in their own small world – a poor shantytown clinging precariously to the slopes of one of the numerous morros or tall, steep hills that dot the Rio de Janeiro skyline – they can clearly identify the local cause behind the tragedy: the artificial diversion of a stream that has caused the gradual erosion of the hillside they live on.

From his vantage point in academia, oceanographer David Zee is fully aware of both the global and local reasons for the current disaster. And he has experienced their effects first hand.

While he could easily use scientific jargon, he prefers everyday language to talk about how he was trapped for almost three days in his apartment in the Rio neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca, hit by heavy flooding as a result of the torrential rains that have lashed the city since Monday.

“What would have once been considered extraordinary has started to become ordinary,” the professor of oceanography at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro told IPS.

Natural disasters like the one provoked by this week’s rainstorm, called the worst in four decades by state authorities, “are now here to stay,” he added.

Zee, who is also the coordinator of the master’s degree programme in environmental studies at Veiga de Almeida University, attributes the severity of the storm to “global climate changes that have local effects.”

These changes include, among others, increased activity since late 2009 of the El Niño/Southern Oscillation climate phenomenon, characterised by an abnormal rise in surface water temperature in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

“In Rio de Janeiro we are suffering from a climate phenomenon with a global cause. The higher sea temperature leads to greater evaporation of water, which in turn produces more rain,” he explained.

The effects of this global factor are exacerbated by other, local factors, such as the geographical location of Rio Janeiro, which was built “between the rock of the mountains and the sea.”

“Rio de Janeiro is like a shellfish, squeezed between the sea and the mountains along a narrow strip of coastline,” he commented.

Further contributing to the problem is the environmental deterioration caused by the city’s population growth. Cement is now much more widespread than forest cover, which used to help retain water in the hills and mountains. Now the water simply flows right through.

Chronic shortfalls in the city’s drainage systems and the now commonplace accumulation of rubbish on the hillsides obviously do nothing to help matters.

When a cold front enters the region, it hits up against the “wall” of mountains along the coast, and essentially remains stuck over the city.

The heavy flooding in Barra da Tijuca, an upper-middle class neighbourhood, did not happen by chance, but was rather the result of explosive real estate development that ignored the dangers of building too close to the banks of rivers and inlets.

A world away from Barra da Tijuca, in the favela of Guararapes, a group of neighbourhood women who spoke with IPS did not need scientific jargon to talk – and sometimes shout – about the local causes of their own personal tragedy,

Their anger and despair are understandable. After a lifetime of struggle and sacrifice, of building their houses brick by brick, of raising their children and burying their parents in this poverty-stricken area that is nonetheless their home, they are now forced to leave it all behind, because of the heightened risk of their houses collapsing and landslides.

They insist that the whole problem began when a stream – formerly their source of drinking water – was diverted for a private real estate development on the peak of the hill. Since then, leaking water has been gradually filtering down and eroding the hillside, “and that’s what caused the landslides,” Jurema de Moraes told IPS.

“We had to leave our houses because everything came crashing down on us. We have no light, no water, it’s extremely dangerous, and we have no idea where we are going to live now,” said Elizabethe da Silva, another of the 500 residents of Guararapes.

The diversion of the stream, which used to flow clear and strong and met all of the community’s drinking water needs, triggered an additional tragedy.

The abnormally high volume of rainfall, which in just one day surpassed the amount forecast for the entire month, caused the community water tank to burst and collapse. It fell on a nearby house, killing the three little girls who lived there, although their mother managed to survive.

“Three little girls have died, we’re sleeping outside exposed to the elements, but they’re covering it all up, because this is a tourist area,” said da Silva, referring to the fact that the train to the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, a world-famous Rio landmark, runs up this same hill.

“We can’t blame nature, because it knows what it’s doing. But we can blame human beings,” Waldemar Santana reflected.

Far from Guararapes, in the city of Niterói, which faces Rio de Janeiro across Guanabara Bay, global and local factors combined to cause yet another tragedy. This time the victims were the residents of Morro da Bumba, a favela built entirely on the site of a former garbage dump, which has received funding from successive governments to improve living conditions there.

Torrential rains and gale-force winds crushed the flimsy houses built up the slope of the old landfill and swept them downhill in an avalanche of mud, cement, bricks and corpses that buried the homes further down.

The landfill formerly underlying the favela has now been unearthed by the mudslide, forcing rescue teams to wade through garbage and the stench of decay.

The health minister of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cortés, admitted that this was one of the worst possible places to build a housing settlement.

In 2007, a report from Federal Fluminense University (UFF) stated that there were 143 sites in Niterói with a propensity for landslides.

“Considering the number of irregular settlements in our city, the only solution is to move the families who are in high-risk areas, and to promote the urbanisation and regularisation of land ownership in the others,” Regina Bienestein, an urbanisation specialist at UFF, told IPS.

Among the other causes of the current catastrophe, UFF points to the deforestation of hills and mountains where the poorest of the poor tend to build their homes. In essence, local developments like these have had a spiral effect on the consequences of global warming, further deepening the tragedy now facing Brazil

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