Floods in Rio Grande do Sul: The Tragedy of Non-Resilient Cities

The world has changed, and accepting this fact is no longer a matter of choice but survival. Our rainfall patterns, periods of drought, average temperatures, sea levels—everything is in constant flux. The denialist stance of many countries, including Brazil, has led to catastrophic situations like the one we are facing now.

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

A total of 336 municipalities in the state of Rio Grande do Sul are currently declared disaster areas, with the tragedy claiming over 80 lives thus far. More than one million properties are without electricity. Families, stranded for a week without access to clean water, food, or medicine, are now being rescued. Volunteers from across the country are mobilizing to the south, bringing boats and kayaks to aid in search and rescue efforts for people and animals. Fundraising campaigns for money, clothing, and food are being widely promoted. It’s difficult for any Brazilian to remain uninformed about this situation.

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From a scientific standpoint, the war-like scenario was propelled by the massive volume of rainfall in recent weeks, a situation far from random. In just ten days, a quarter of the expected yearly rainfall poured down, a change in the precipitation regime attributed to the heatwave recorded in the central-western and southeastern regions of the country, where temperatures are about 5°C above average. This heat zone hindered the advance of cold air masses towards the north, causing a climatic imbalance in the southern region.

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However, the worsening of the situation occurred not only due to the heavy rainfall but also because it fell upon cities completely unprepared in various aspects. The discussion starts with the way these urban areas are developed. Most of them grow without considering the local geography, their levels of vulnerability, and the importance of preserving nature. These settlements prioritize locations near riverbanks or lakeshores, including flat and low-lying areas. The occupation of these flood-prone areas becomes extremely harmful as it hinders their function in water drainage and subsequent flood prevention.

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Many cities worldwide, grappling with historic flooding, have recognized the importance of letting water flow instead of obstructing it. Numerous cities, including over 60 in China alone, have implemented “floodable parks,” offering a promising solution for Brazil’s southern regions. These parks, known for their sustainable urban drainage systems, temporarily store rainwater during floods, rendering them inaccessible to the public during these periods. However, once water levels recede, they transform into public recreational spaces, blending environmental preservation with quality public amenities.

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Just like floodable parks, other strategies are being implemented worldwide to address urban flooding, ranging from Copenhagen’s permeable pavements to the daylighting of the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul. These examples serve as valuable case studies that warrant revisiting and thorough examination.

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Soon, the cities of southern Brazil will embark on the task of rebuilding, necessitating a fresh perspective that acknowledges the current climatic challenges. This entails not just reimagining urban layouts but also designing architectures equipped to handle such scenarios. The importance of this change has been underscored by the experiences of certain southern Brazilian cities, which, having learned from previous floods, managed to mitigate the impacts of recent rains, albeit to a limited extent. Their success can be attributed to initiatives like gradually vacating flood-prone areas and educating the populace about extreme weather conditions—both pivotal strategies.

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The time when Brazilians proudly considered themselves to live in a “blessed country,” untouched by environmental disasters due to our absence from seismic zones or hurricane paths, is long gone. Accepting the seriousness of floods and landslides is now part of a necessary public prevention policy. Educating the population on how to respond to situations like the one in Rio Grande do Sul should be a top priority. However, during the recent tragedy, evacuation maps of the state capital were found to be inaccurate, incorrectly labeling elevated areas as flood-prone. This highlights a broader issue: emergency communication in Brazil lacks clear evacuation plans and preventive disaster alerts. Furthermore, the burden is often placed on individuals to decide when to evacuate their homes, despite lacking the precise information and necessary climatic knowledge to assess the level of emergency accurately.

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Addressing this situation requires action across multiple fronts, but it all begins with rejecting climate denialism, whether in government or the private sector. In a political environment where conservative factions hold sway in Congress, it’s crucial to understand that issues like environmental preservation, protection of indigenous lands, and reducing deforestation should not be solely framed in economic terms; they are inherently linked to the climate crisis.

This tragedy vividly illustrates the impacts of global warming and emphasizes that addressing the climate crisis goes beyond mere green certifications. It requires acknowledging the risks and directing comprehensive public policies—across urban planning, environmental protection, social welfare, and education—to confront these challenges. It’s not merely an option but a survival imperative.

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