Floods in Summerland

January 6, 2010

It happens every single summer, in many cities of South-Southeast Brazil. The rain season literally destroys whole communities, namely those installed on river margins or on steep slopes. Those who cannot afford to move to less risky areas.

Once I interviewed this lady who lived by the Tamanduateí, in São Paulo, a river whose margins are paved in such a way that the overflow has nowhere to go but into people’s lives. She described how her husband carried her into the house when they got married – not because he was romantic, but because the first floor was flooded. Then she showed me how she managed to survive under water – she installed several platforms to keep the phone and the TV out of reach and a pulley to lift the furniture whenever it rained strong.

Two huge tragedies in the last few weeks showed that even very touristic cities are not at bay. In Angra dos Reis, the resort in the state of Rio known for its hundreds of islands and yacht clubs, a landslide destroyed an upscale pousada (a small resort) and killed at least 30 people. In São Luiz do Paraitinga, a cute little town in the state of São Paulo, known for its traditional music and cachaça (sugar cane alcoholic beverage),  at least 50 buildings in the historic part of the city may fall. The two main churches, the city hall, the archives, the library – all of them were destroyed.

These episodes aren’t accidental. Every year, specialists come up with explanations that combine the following causes:

  • Expansion of housing projects and shanty towns into areas that are regularly flooded (cheap and available land). Local governments seem to have little power to refrain these settlements and sometimes even stimulate them, emitting building permits where no one should ever build.
  • Deforestation of river margins and slopes. Once there are no roots holding the mud, it slides to the bottom of the waterways, reducing their capacity of absorbing the water.
  • Making the soil impermeable by cementing every inch of free land. Once the water hits the cement, it has nowhere to go, but into the buildings. By the way, this is a huge cultural problem: everywhere you go in Brazil, poor or rich neighborhoods, you will notice homeowners choose to cement their yards and driveways, removing all the vegetation.
  • Bad planning and miscalculations of hydro power dams. These constructions frequently change the course of rivers and remove lots of vegetation, unbalancing the water cycle.
  • Climate change, that makes the weather unpredictable and generates more storms in regions where they were not so frequent.

All these causes don’t seem to get any better, year after year. Next Summer, Brazilians will be enjoying the beach – except for those that will be mourning their deads and their losses.

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  1. Great post- I read recently that 100,000 residents here in Salvador live in danger of mudslides. It is terrifying. I think it is also difficult for people who have not been to tropical countries to understand the sheer volume of rain that can fall in a very short time- we have had some bad experiences with leaks and I still get tense when we get a particularly hard rain. One thing you mentioned particularly struck me as it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately- why is it that Brazilians want to pave over their yards? My brother in law recently bought a house, razed everything in the yard and cemented it all over. I have no open earth in my own house and it makes me terribly sad. In a marginally related matter I’ve noticed that Brazilians have a tendency to rip out wood floors and put in tiles- why is that?

    • More than once I questioned people who cemented their yards about their reasons. Normally they answer it is easier to clean (?!). About the wood floors, I can only guess: in beach towns, the wood may get rotten. And tiles are cooler (in the temperature sense). Anyways, these decisions don’t make any sense to me.

      • the tiles are cooler- too cool! They pull all the heat out of my feet! although I’m pretty used to it by now.

  2. Way to go there. Good piece of journalistic writing. However, some of the explanations offered by the so called experts sound more like excuses to me, but I have to agree 100% that deforestation of not only the river banks but also grasslands is a great catalyst for flooding and mudslides. The amount vegetation in/on the soil not only serves to bind the soil together, but also to slow down the passage of moving water. Bodies of water moving through grass covered soil is less rapid and much less destructive than water moving without any opposing force. And we all know the destructive force of rapidly moving bodies of water. That’s why municipalities make legislation governing the percentage of your proerty that can be paved. Except in the flood proned regions of Brazil of course.

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