• Extreme weather events have intensified in Brazil in recent years, claiming hundreds of lives and taking a massive toll on the environment.
  • A study documents more than 50,000 natural disasters, mostly caused by severe climate events, between 2013 and 2022, causing losses of $64 billion.
  • Experts attribute the toll to the government repeatedly ignoring warnings about climate-related risks and failing to invest in adaptation and prevention measures.
  • As the country prepares to elect a president at the end of this month, neither candidate has offered any concrete proposals for the prevention and management of climate disaster risks.

“People’s post-traumatic stress levels are extremely high,” says Rafaela Facchetti, a researcher at Brazil’s National School of Public Health, or ENSP.

The people in question are the residents of Petrópolis, a municipality in the state of Rio de Janeiro, who were hit hard by torrential rains at the start of the year that caused flooding and landslides throughout the area. In only four hours one afternoon, the normal rainfall for the entire month of February fell on Petrópolis.

But this isn’t the only place experiencing extreme rainfall in Brazil. Across the country, millions of people have been impacted by torrential rains in recent years, losing their homes, jobs, family members or even their own lives. This year has been the deadliest in recent history: 457 deaths have already been attributed to heavy rains.

Yet in other parts of the country, warnings of a different extreme climate event are multiplying: drought. The Pantanal, one of the planet’s most expansive wetlands, which in Brazil straddles the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, is currently suffering from the severest drought on record in decades. This has resulted in forest fires of unprecedented dimensions, causing damage to human, animal and plant life.

Traditional communities living in the biome, including Indigenous and riverside communities, known as ribeirinhos, are the main victims of the drought and resulting fires in the region, says André Siqueira, a biologist and director of the conservation NGO Ecoa. He says these people are having to deal not only with the loss of their possessions but also the psychological trauma of carrying on with life in a region where 26% of the landscape was burned and 17 million animals were killed — and that was from fires in 2020 alone.

Ignored warnings and risks

For decades, scientists and civil society organizations have been alerting public authorities to the consequences of climate change and the importance of mitigation and adaptation measures. One of the consequences is the increased frequency and intensity of extreme climate events like strong rains and droughts, which can have disastrous impacts on the population, the environment and the economy.

A study by Brazil’s National Confederation of Municipalities (CNM), using data from the Ministry of Regional Development’s Integrated System of Disaster Information (S2ID/MDR), identified more than 50,000 natural disasters in the country between 2013 and 2022, most of them climate related. Some of these incidents are recorded in the Digital Atlas of Disasters in Brazil, a project by the Federal University of Santa Catarina, which maps natural disasters across the country.

The CNM study indicates that these disasters impacted some 340 million people (many communities were affected by more than one incident during this period) and caused losses of more than 340 billion reais ($64 billion) to the public and private sectors. Essentially, it shows that the risks associated with climate disasters and their impacts are evident, yet still go ignored.

In 2019, when Ecoa realized that the Pantanal was in the grip of a water shortage and that this could lead to more fires in the region, it raised its concerns to the authorities in hopes of averting a “catastrophic situation.” But its technical warnings were ignored. “So there we were in 2020, with the worst environmental tragedy the biome has ever gone through,” Siqueira says.

He adds there were no official plans in place for combating the fires, while public funding for this purpose was — and still is — lacking. Ecoa has been helping train volunteer fire brigades so that the traditional communities in the Pantanal can protect themselves and fight the fires.

The government’s lack of attention and preparation in relation to climate risk and disaster also led to the worst socioenvironmental tragedy in the mountains of the state of Rio de Janeiro, where 947 people were killed in January 2011 from landslides triggered by extreme rainfall. Petrópolis was one of the municipalities affected in what’s become known as the “megadisaster.” That disaster repeated itself this year, albeit on a smaller scale.

Facchetti, the ENSP researcher who is also a civil engineer, says Rio de Janeiro’s mountainous region is prone to landslides because of the type of soil and other environmental conditions. That means landslides should be considered “normal” during heavy rains, and that competent authorities should be aware of this risk. What’s not normal, she says, is for public resources to be allocated only to rebuilding, or post-disaster, and not to prevention, or pre-disaster.


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