The tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul

Image: Nikola Tomašić


In general, vulnerabilities to extreme climate events are strongly related to the benefits given to capital interests

The people of Rio Grande do Sul are being punished by “the biggest climate disaster in the state”, as declared by Governor Eduardo Leite, while recognizing the severe limitations of public power to face this extreme climate event: “we will not have the capacity to carry out all the rescues, because it is much more dispersed in this climate event that we are experiencing”.

Something that reveals the dimension of the tragedy and the state's lack of equipment to face these situations, even though they are increasingly recurrent and, therefore, it is increasingly unrealistic to treat them as rare and unpredictable events.

In the same state of Rio Grande do Sul, in September 2023, the most extreme climate phenomenon ever recorded had already occurred, an extratropical cyclone during which 157 people were left homeless and 54 died. In other words, in just 8 months, the people of Rio Grande do Sul were severely hit by climate events, each one more extreme than the last.

Will anyone ask the state governor and the mayor of Porto Alegre what measures were taken to better equip public authorities to protect people and what contingency plan was produced based on the evidence experienced eight months ago? Simple things like qualifying the state Civil Defense, mapping the most sensitive areas of the state, establishing partnerships with municipalities for contingency and prevention plans; or, in the case of Porto Alegre, have the pump houses and flood protection system gates been renovated?  

The current tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul is of unprecedented proportions, but not unpredictable. To be restricted to just the south of the country, it is worth remembering that the people of Santa Catarina, in 2008, had already suffered such intense rains that affected around 1,5 million people, of which 120 were killed and 69.000 left homeless, which, in At the time, it was the worst climate tragedy in the history of the southern region.

Since then, 16 long years have passed and many other extreme weather events have occurred, with 2009 being considered the driest year in the last 80 years; and 2022 was the year in which 96 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul (19% of cities in Rio Grande do Sul) declared an emergency situation due to drought.

Due to their scope, violence and recurrence, these few examples are enough to show that authorities at all levels of government cannot continue acting as if everything were new and all that remains is to regret the lack of adequate instruments to protect people. It is necessary to consolidate an effective national system, which involves all levels of government and society, to prevent the causes of climate change, defend vulnerable populations and mitigate its consequences.

The first step is to abandon the denialist stance and think about a true revolution in the occupation and organization of urban and rural space, in the protection of river basins and inequalities in access to basic services. Defending, in fact, people's safety is not just distributing weapons and investing in repression, but universalizing access to basic services and ensuring that everyone can enjoy the city, without living in permanent insecurity, having their home flooded, their property destroyed and always be condemned to having to start over from scratch, after each extreme climate event.

Once again, society's solidarity is moving and essential, but it cannot continue to be the only alternative. Structural measures are needed to limit socio-environmental vulnerabilities, a daily effort by governments and a permanent struggle by social movements so that these issues are not discussed only in these tragic moments.

In general, vulnerabilities to extreme climatic events are strongly related to the benefits given to capital interests in the forms of production of urban space, such as transforming buffer areas for water courses and areas designated for green areas into merchandise. This leads us to the unavoidable conclusion that the tragic social consequences of so-called “natural” events must be considered as inseparable from the set of everyday decisions made to benefit the interests of those who want to incorporate the entire urban and rural space into merchandise.

These, instead of qualifying public services to better serve people, are always working to deliver them to generate profit. It is this daily work against the majority that produces immense differences in access to decent and safe housing; as well as adequate infrastructure and quality basic services.

Although tragic inequalities are invisible in everyday discussions, they present themselves fully in these moments. But the truth is that it is not these extreme climate events that create inequalities, but rather the model of urban and societal development that places people in a situation subordinate to economic interests.

It's time for governments to speak less on behalf of the market and defend more the people they promised to represent.

*Gerson Almeida, sociologist, former councilor and former secretary of the environment of Porto Alegre, he was national secretary of social articulation in the Lula 2 government.

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