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BRAZIL: Flooding Highlights Lack of Disaster Prevention

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 12 2009 (IPS) - Several weeks of unusually heavy rainfall and flooding that has affected nearly one million people in 10 of Brazil’s 26 states have revealed a problem that only becomes news when tragedies occur: the lack of public investment in disaster prevention, experts warn.

The worst flooding in at least two decades has claimed at least 44 lives, left over 300,000 homeless and evacuated, washed out bridges and roads, destroyed hundreds of homes, and caused huge losses for agriculture in northeastern Brazil.

Ercilia Torres, a geographer who specialises in climatology, told IPS that the disastrous consequences of these climatic phenomena could be greatly reduced with proper planning and the necessary infrastructure works.

Flooded rivers and landslides caused by the heavy rainfall that began in early April have led to the collapse of houses and destroyed crops in 320 municipalities.

Television images show rooftops under water, people moving around their towns in canoes and boats, and overcrowded emergency shelters – reminiscent of the scenes broadcast last year when intense rainfall caused a similar tragedy in the southern state of Santa Catarina.

“The important thing is to plan,” said Torres, from the University of Brasilia Department of Geography. “Zoning and urban planning are needed, and must take climatic aspects into account.”


She referred, for example, to planning of low-cost housing to keep units from being built in areas at risk of landslides or flooding, and to the construction of dams and drainpipes.

“These works are costly, but they can prevent greater tragedies,” said Torres.

According to a United Nations estimate, for each dollar invested in the prevention of natural disasters, 10 dollars are saved in disaster response costs.

The head of the Civil Defence Secretariat, Roberto Guimarães, agreed that disaster prevention, zoning and urban planning are needed, but said that Brazil has a “cultural tradition” of taking measures after, rather than before, disasters.

During emergencies, the Civil Defence Secretariat distributes food aid, medicines, clothing and blankets, clears roads, and rescues and evacuates local residents.

After flying over flooded areas, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva blamed state and municipal governments for failing to take preventive measures, like averting the construction of homes along rivers.

But the press later reported that many of the flooded homes had been financed by the Caixa Econômica Federal, a government financial institution.

Local authorities, meanwhile, have complained about the central government’s delays in releasing funds to finance disaster prevention and infrastructure works.

Torres said it was a combination of both factors. On one hand, there is the “bureaucratic question” when it comes to the disbursement of funds, and on the other “a lack of political will.”

“The need for these funds is only remembered when tragedies happen; later it’s forgotten,” she said.

Lula said he would send Congress a provisional measure to help states with the rebuilding and recovery efforts. According to preliminary estimates, economic damages amount to at least 500 million dollars, without counting the losses in agriculture, which have not yet been assessed in all of the flooded areas.

No prevention despite warnings

“The rains did not take us by surprise,” said Torres. “Meteorological reports had forecast heavy rainfall.”

In February, Environment Minister Carlos Minc warned that the rains, which were already falling in northwestern Brazil, could continue to be heavy until June, the month when water levels are highest in the rivers of the Amazon jungle.

Manaus, the capital of the northwestern state of Amazonas, is facing its worst flooding since 1953. The water level in the Negro river has risen more than three metres, said Minc.

“We don’t want to be alarmist, but the way things are going, the situation is disturbing,” the minister said, adding that “this time they can’t say that this happened because there was no warning: we gave a warning 60 days ahead of time.”

The states hit hardest by the intense rainfall and flooding are Amazonas in the north and Maranhão, Ceará, Piauí and Paraíba in the northeast. But parts of Rio Grande do Norte, Bahia, Pernambuco and Alagoas, also in the northeast, have been affected as well, along with the Atlantic coastal region of Santa Catarina, in the south – despite the drought affecting most of that state.

Isimar de Azevedo, with the Department of Meteorology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), told IPS that two national institutes had warned about heavy rains as far back as January.

According to the experts, the unusually intense rains have been caused by two simultaneous climate phenomena: La Niña, characterised by an atypical cooling of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean, and the formation of a low pressure belt on land in the equatorial region, known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, when hot, humid winds bring cloud masses and cause heavier than normal rainfall, usually in March and April, in northeastern Brazil.

With the meteorological tools that are available today, small farmers in the north who have lost their subsistence corn and bean crops because of the rains could have planted earlier, for instance, in response to the weather forecasts, said Azevedo.

According to the meteorologist, periods of intense drought frequently alternate with periods of extreme rainfall in northwestern Brazil. “But instead of paying attention to official meteorological information, farmers prefer to follow their own experience,” he said.

“They planted at the time when they normally plant, but if they had used the information that was available, they would have planted a little earlier, so the rains did not hurt the flowering of the plants, which was what caused the greatest losses in agriculture in the north, because in that period of growth, crops need less water,” Azevedo explained.

Agribusiness interests, on the other hand, “which grow fruit, not cereals, were not hurt because they made use of the available information,” he noted.

But meteorologists failed to predict just how intense the rainfall would be. Although the weather reports forecast heavier than normal rainfall in the Amazon region, “we were surprised by the actual volume, which we did not expect,” said Azevedo.

Rainfall in the northwest has been more than 50 percent above normal. In Amazonas, the increase was between 30 and 40 percent, and in some spots was more than 100 percent above average, said the UFRJ expert.

Azevedo did not go so far as to attribute the heavy rains to climate change, but he did say that such heavy rains had not been seen in the northwest in 10 years.

Meteorologist Carlos Nobre at the National Institute on Space Research told the local press that although there have been intense drought and rainfall in the north before, “these phenomena are more intense than what we have seen in the past.”

What is happening, he said, is “characteristic of a planet that is heating up.”

Dionísio Neto with the Environmental Network of Piauí does not rule out the possibility that the uncontrolled spread of monoculture crops like soy has had an influence on the water level in the Paraíba river, which runs through Piauí and Maranhão.

“This is a reflection of the destruction of the ecosystem,” said Neto, referring to this year’s historic flooding.

Flooding in the north, drought down south

At the same time, Azevedo blamed the drought that is plaguing Rio Grande do Sul and parts of Santa Catarina – whose Atlantic coast area is receiving heavy rain – on “a response by the atmospheric system to the rains in the northeast and the northwest, a kind of compensation.”

Like Torres, Azevedo underscored the need for “maximum possible interaction between the concerned entities, like civil defence, the government, cabinet ministries and local authorities.”

“It is very interesting that the public places more and more trust in weather forecasts, that there is a growing perception that meteorological forecasts have improved,” he said.

“Maybe this is a good time for more information to be shared among the institutions responsible for civil defence and food production and the meteorology institutes, to prevent further damages,” he said.

A prolonged drought is affecting around one million people in southern Brazil, where 96 municipalities have declared a state of emergency due to the damages caused to soy, maize and beans crops, pastureland, and water supplies for human and animal consumption.

The Agriculture Ministry expects smaller than normal harvests of crops like wheat in the south, due mainly to the lack of rainfall.

The drought has delayed the planting of wheat in some regions of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul and in parts of Paraná, which could hurt the southern hemisphere winter harvest, said Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes.

National wheat production in the last harvest was six million tons – the highest output since 2004. The official forecast for the 2008-2009 season is 5.5 million tons, which would be a nine percent drop.

Livestock have also sustained damages. The flooding and the continuous moving of animals back and forth in search of dry land and better pastures in the northeastern state of Ceará has caused losses of 50 percent there.

Productivity in the dairy industry is also down, with a 40 percent drop in milk production in some regions.

Another problem has been added to the drought and flooding: the arrival of the new H1N1 flu virus, popularly known as “swine flu”. Lula urged health authorities to redouble efforts to contain the spread of the H1N1 virus, of which there were eight confirmed cases in the southeast as of Tuesday.

 
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