Floods in Rio Grande do Sul: the tragedy of non-resilient cities

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https://www.archdaily.com.br/br/1016391/enchentes-no-sul-do-brasil-a-tragedia-das-cidades-nao-resilientes

The world has changed and accepting this fact is no longer a matter of choice, but of survival. Our rainfall regimes, dry periods, average temperatures, sea levels, everything is constantly changing and the denialist stance of many countries, including Brazil, has generated calamitous situations like the one we are facing now.

The floods that devastated the south of the country in recent days cannot be considered isolated events. Due to global warming, climate events like this will be increasingly recurrent. In other words, unfortunately, we will not be able to prevent them from happening, but we can – and must – make our cities more resilient to these situations.

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PORTO ALEGRE, RS, BRAZIL, 05/05/2024 – General photos of flooding in Porto Alegre. Photo: Gustavo Mansur/ Piratini Palace. Flickr user licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

In total, there are 336 municipalities in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the context of calamity, resulting in a tragedy that has resulted in more than 80 deaths so far. More than a million properties are without power. Families are being rescued after a week stranded without drinking water, food or medicine. Volunteers from across the country are heading south, taking boats and kayaks to help with the search and rescue of people and animals. Campaigns to raise money, clothes and food are announced all the time. It is difficult for a Brazilian to be oblivious to this situation.


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Scientifically speaking, the war scenario was driven by the enormous volume of rain in recent weeks, a situation, however, that is far from being the result of chance. In ten days, it rained a quarter of the amount expected for the entire year and this change in rainfall came about due to the heat wave recorded in the central-west and southeast regions of the country, where temperatures are around 5°C above average. This heat zone was responsible for preventing the cold air mass from advancing towards the north, causing a climate imbalance in the southern region.

Floods in Rio Grande do Sul: the tragedy of non-resilient cities - Image 3 of 16
RS, BRAZIL – 5.5.2024 – Rescue operation with the Fire Department helicopter in the Metropolitan Region (PHOTOS: LAURO ALVES/SECOM). Flickr user licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

The worsening of the situation, however, occurred not only because of the heavy rains, but because they fell on cities that were completely unprepared in several aspects. The discussion already begins with how to implement these urban areas. The vast majority of them grow without considering the geography of the location, its levels of vulnerability and the importance of preserving nature. These are settlements that value locations close to the banks of rivers or lakes, also including flat and lower areas. The occupation of these floodable areas becomes extremely harmful as it impedes their function in water drainage and the consequent flood prevention.

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PORTO ALEGRE, RS, BRAZIL, 05/07/2024 – General photos of floods, Av Loureiro da Silva, CAFF and region. Photos: Gustavo Mansur/ Piratini Palace. Flickr user licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

Many cities that suffered from historic flooding around the world have now understood that water needs to flow and not be blocked. Following this premise, most of them created the so-called “floodable parks” (there are over 60 in China alone), an interesting solution for the southern regions of Brazil. Considered sustainable urban drainage systems, these spaces retain rainwater, becoming unusable for people during flooding periods. However, after the water level drops, they offer public leisure areas for the population, combining environmental preservation and quality public spaces.

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Rainwater Spring Park / Turenscape. © Turenscape

As well as floodable parks, other strategies are being put into practice to deal with urban flooding around the world, from the drainage floors in Copenhagen to the unblocking of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, configuring examples that need to be revisited and studied.

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Seoul River. © Michael Sotnikov

Very soon the cities in southern Brazil will begin to be rebuilt and this reconstruction needs to come from a new perspective that takes into account the climate scenario we are experiencing, thinking about urban designs, but also architecture, prepared to deal with these situations . The change is fundamental and its effectiveness can already be seen in some cities in southern Brazil that learned their lesson from last year’s floods and managed to reduce – even if only a little – the effects of the recent rains. This was because they had already started a process of vacating the floodplain areas and informing the population about extreme weather situations, another point of fundamental importance.

Floods in Rio Grande do Sul: the tragedy of non-resilient cities - Image 5 of 16
PORTO ALEGRE, RS, BRAZIL, 05/05/2024 – General photos of flooding in Porto Alegre. Photo: Gustavo Mansur/ Piratini Palace. Flickr user licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

Gone are the days when we, Brazilians, were proud to say that we lived in a “blessed country”, without environmental disasters because we were not located in seismic zones or hurricane routes. Accepting the impact of floods and landslides as extremely serious situations is part of a public prevention policy. Educating the population on how to act in cases like this in Rio Grande do Sul must be a priority. During the last tragedy, the evacuation maps of the state capital, for example, were wrong, showing the city’s high points as floodable areas. In other words, communication about tragedies in Brazil is carried out on an emergency basis, there is a lack of legible evacuation plans and there is no preventive communication about disasters. Furthermore, the government passes the responsibility to the population for deciding when to evacuate their home or not, with ordinary citizens neither having the precise information nor the climate knowledge necessary to assess the degree of the emergency.

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RS, BRAZIL – 5.5.2024 – Rescue operation with the Fire Department helicopter in the Metropolitan Region (PHOTOS: LAURO ALVES/SECOM). Flickr user licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic

There are many instances that need to be worked on to overcome this situation, however, they all begin with the act of abolishing climate denialism, both at the governmental and private levels. In a political situation in which conservative groups predominate in Congress, it is urgent to understand that issues related to environmental preservation, protection of indigenous lands or reducing deforestation should not be dealt with solely in the economic sphere, but rather, are part of the climate discussion.

This tragedy once again materializes the effects of global warming and leaves as a lesson the fact that the climate issue goes far beyond green certifications, it requires the recognition of risks and the direction of public policies – urban, environmental, social and educational – to face them, not as a choice, but as a strategy to survive.


The article is in Portuguese

Tags: Floods Rio Grande Sul tragedy nonresilient cities

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