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Rio Grande do Sul under water

Climate disaster in Brazil's southernmost state



The climate disaster in Brazil’s southernmost state has provoked commotion and solidarity but also questions and criticisms of the man-made causes which contributed to it.

The horse ‘Caramelo’ stranded on a rooftop.

A bewildered horse standing motionless on the roof of a shed, entirely surrounded by water, for a week. A tiny baby handed from the brawny arms of one rescuer to another with infinite tenderness. Entire families winched from rooftops into helicopters as the waters swirled round their homes.

Helicopters, boats, dinghies, even jet skis were involved in the massive effort to rescue hundreds trapped by the rapidly rising waters as five rivers, swollen with exceptionally heavy rains, broke their banks and flooded vast areas. Rescue workers came from all over Brazil, firefighters, soldiers, pilots, police, doctors, nurses, vets, and ordinary people. The Navy’s biggest ship steamed down the coast from Rio to provide an emergency hospital and equipment for producing drinking water. Small planes landed on empty roads as the airport was under water. All over Brazil people donated clothes, food, money.

video: BBC News Brasil 10 May 2024

The destruction is vast. Bridges swept away by raging torrents, roads torn up and destroyed, thousands of homes turned into piles of matchsticks, trees uprooted and thrown on top of houses. half a million people displaced, most of whom are now homeless and living in shelters or with family, over 130 confirmed dead, another 130 missing, 90 per cent of the state affected. Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, Porto Alegre, inundated, with power and water cut off for most of the inhabitants for days.

It adds up to the worst ever climate disaster in Brazil, a terrible foretaste of the dystopian future that awaits us if global warming continues at the present rate and governments and politicians at all levels continue not only to deny its reality but to contribute to it with anti-environmental legislation.

Many of those who now loudly blame climate change for the disaster are the same politicians who over the last years have steadily eroded laws introduced to protect the environment. Mayors, governors, congressmen and women. Last year the mayor of Porto Alegre did not spend a penny on prevention, although funds were available. The governor, Eduardo Leite, altered state laws aimed at preservation and protection, to favour business interests, and failed to implement a disaster prevention plan drawn up in 2017.

Even as the environmental disaster in Rio Grande do Sul leaves hundreds dead and thousands homeless, and will cost billions of dollars in reconstruction, the national congress is about to debate 20 bills which, if approved, would cause ‘irreversible damage to ecosystems, to the climate and to traditional peoples’, in the words of the Climate Observatory.  

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The disaster in Rio Grande do Sul has been greeted as an unprecedented emergency but for years geographers, environmentalists, and historians had been warning of the dire consequences of building roads and houses in the wrong places, of failing to drain canals, to protect preservation areas, to spend on prevention.

MST Soup kitchen set up at the centre for Assentamiento cooperative workers in the Porto Alegre region. Photo: Victor Frainer/MST

Unbelievably, in the midst of the tragedy and the wave of solidarity it has provoked, some right-wing congress deputies and social media influencers are deliberately spreading fake news, causing confusion and delays in providing help, aimed at denying the federal government’s rapid actions. Lula twice visited the state within the first week to offer practical and financial help.

Donations have come from all over the country, ignoring political labels. Celebrities and high profile singers and DJs have donated, but so also have CUFA, an NGO set up by favelas, which has collected and sent lorryloads of donations to the south, and the MST, some of whose own settlements have been affected.

The looting of abandoned shops and homes and even attacks on rescue boats have been reported. Many people are now afraid to leave their homes, even when the water has invaded them and they are cut off from energy and clean water. Police patrols of flooded areas have been introduced.

Like all disasters, the tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul has revealed the best and the worst in human beings.

Main image: view of Porto Alegre. Photo: Reprodução/Instagram/@marcelocaumors First published by Banda B

Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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