Climate tragedy and political responsibility



It is now possible to take stock, an assessment of what happened in Rio Grande do Sul, which goes beyond the resulting humanitarian crisis and the necessary priority of care for victims


After weeks of suffering the effects of a unique, historic climate tragedy, always compared to another similar flood almost a century ago, it is now possible to take stock, an assessment of what happened, which goes beyond the resulting humanitarian crisis and the necessary priority assistance to victims. From immediate relief to palliative shelters, material and financial support for those affected, their food and the precautions required in individual and collective health care.

The initiative of help, support and solidarity for those affected by the communities in each municipality were and are exemplary of the community, fraternal and human spirit of our people. In addition, it is expected and required that the public authorities, the federated entities, also fulfill their role in crises with their structures of civil defense, basic public services and social assistance as provided for in the laws, in our Constitution, which houses and determines the existence of bodies and institutions prepared for possible catastrophes like we are experiencing.

Phenomena like we are suffering may be secular but they exist and we have to foresee them as possible with accumulated historical knowledge, planning and actions that avoid them or minimize their consequences as much as possible.

The municipalities were affected in different ways by the May rains. Some have lost homes, schools, roads, bridges and facilities essential to their economies and social mobility. Others were invaded by the violent torrent of waters outside their normal courses, destroying entire neighborhoods.

Several municipalities bordering these watercourses in the valleys of the rivers Taquari, Jacuí, Caí, Paranhana, Sinos and others have suffered this type of situation and their communities and public authorities need to agree and respect master plans, expand their green areas and buffer the rainfall, respecting and valuing the riparian forests of streams and rivers, valuing rational urban and rural planning to the detriment of real estate speculation and occupation without restrictions or limits on predominant agricultural exploitation.

In many of them, a deep, serious and rational debate is required in the Municipal Chambers, to approve guidelines and norms that reorient the reconstruction of their municipalities with precautions that avoid new disasters as much as possible. With federal and state public financing policies, with joint projects for common basins, with integrated planning, communities can overcome the tragedy, strengthening new opportunities for economic recovery and employment.


In the case of Porto Alegre and in other situations such as Canoas, the situation is not the same and the consequences for communities in several neighborhoods were not generated by the surprise of the flood, the sudden violence of torrential rains. Several neighborhoods in the capital slowly flooded due to the flood of Lake Guaíba. Just as some factors combined created the conditions for rainfall well above average, the flow capacity of Lake Guaíba also depends on other factors. All difficult to predict in joint action. However, others are predictable, are or should be under the control of public authorities and in the case of the capital, the flooding had much more to do with this than with the violence of the waters or the volume of rain.

Since the 1970s, Porto Alegre has been equipped with a protective system of dikes and walls in the Cais Mauá area that protect it from floods from the Guaíba and a set of pump houses responsible for removing water from the urban area that accumulates with the rains that occur here. These facilities are located throughout the city, BR 290 dike to the north and south, Edvaldo Pereira Paiva and Diário de Notícias avenues.

In addition to this main base, over the years the city has been perfecting the system with installations and flow improvements also in the internal streams that flow through the municipality, canalizations in already built areas and large forced conduits so that flatter regions do not suffer the rainfall volumes of higher regions, such as the currently affected 4th district and its neighborhoods.

During the period of Popular Administration, thanks to the Participatory Budget, the direct participation of the population decided the priority of hundreds of these works, solving historical problems that the city experienced with its internal streams and without neglecting the main system, the pump houses, the floodgates of the wall Cais Mauá and the conservation of the dikes.

The Urban Drainage Master Plan was shared with the community so that the approved works were part of a plan that involved the entire city and was integrated with the work of Metroplan, a state agency, on the metropolitan region, without which it is impossible to think only about capital. Viamão, Alvorada, Gravataí, Cachoeirinha are municipalities fully linked to Porto Alegre in a policy of preserving rivers and streams and urban drainage.

The great protective project for the metropolitan region where Porto Alegre is located was never fully implemented. The extinction of the former National Department of Sanitation Works (DNOS) by the Collor government in 1990 left a gap in works of this size and involving regions with several municipalities. The body that inherited this mission in Rio Grande was Metroplan, responsible for thinking about complex regional policies. It has a Master Plan in this regard that was not prioritized and the body was liquidated during the Leite government, remaining only as a supervisor of intermunicipal public transport in the region.


What happened, then, in Porto Alegre, during this flood? What is the reason for the brutal consequences for thousands of citizens losing their assets, their living conditions, their work?

Even with the extraordinary volume of rain in the region of the rivers that form the Jacuí Delta estuary, the main dikes and the Cais wall were not exceeded at their maximum level. Several neighborhoods were flooded because the protection system did not work. Pump houses didn't work, the floodgates leaked and even couldn't withstand the pressure. The penstocks of the 4th District broke the inspection covers and as some pump houses gushed water from the lake into the city instead of fulfilling their function of expelling them, a large part of the city became a growing lake because even in the interval due to the rains, with the lake falling, simple gravity was not capable of returning the water accumulated in the city as the pump system was already inoperative as it had also been flooded.

This episode revealed perhaps the most revealing scene of the incompetence, ineffectiveness, and stupidity of the current administration. They ripped out one of the floodgates on the avenue. Mauá with a tugboat, to the delight of the mayor and others who were thrilled with the partial release of the waters and, the next day, with the lake rising again, they rushed to close the wall with piled up bags. It is the most accurate photograph of an inept and irresponsible government. But what happened was not just due to these moments of despair and incompetence.

In the 2020 electoral campaign, current mayor Sebastião Melo harshly criticized his opponent and predecessor, because he had not used the availability of federal resources in the order of more than 100 million to reform and update the protective system: wall, dikes, floodgates, pump houses. Worse, Mayor Nelson Marchezan Jr. not only did nothing, he didn't use the resource and, what's more, he abolished the agency, the Storm Sewer Department (DEP). Autonomous body, with Secretariat level, precisely because it was a peculiar city, with a large part occupied by the lake and with a similar height.

The current government therefore knew about the problem and criticized the previous one for not having taken the resources or done the necessary work. The entire pumping system is on duty 24 hours a day. How can you not know about maintenance, breakdowns, renovations?

Now, Sebastião Melo's government does not accept political criticism and had the nerve to publicly state that responsibility and blame must be divided between “mayors that the city had after the construction of the wall”. Five former mayors in a public note repudiated the frivolity of Mayor Sebastião Melo and expressed solidarity with the demonstration of dozens of experts, technicians, university professors and former directors of the DEP and DMAE who had already exposed their criticisms of the current administration due to the lack of maintenance and neglect of the protective system.

The problem is not personal, of this or that mayor. The issue today is the predominant vision of these neoliberal governments driven by market irrationality and unbridled capitalist accumulation at any cost, which does not submit to collective interest, respect for nature and the environment.

Recently, Governor Eduardo Leite – who liquidated Metroplan – when advertising yet another of his privatizations, the Cais Mauá concession auction, with the possibility of the “sacred” entrepreneurs building there above the standard of the Master Plan, “ making investments of more than 1,5 billion reais”, he said, smiling, “without having that wall that divided the old port from the city”.

For Eduardo Leite, the wall is a mess, there as an out-of-place whim, with no public protective function for the city and its history.

We experienced the same behavior during the episode of the exchange of public areas that enabled the construction of Arena do Grêmio, in the Humaitá neighborhood, today one of the biggest victims of the May floods. Our bench conditioned the vote on the project as long as the developer was required to work on drainage, opening roads and urban mobility given the size of the work and the set of groynes included. Despite the law, neither the State nor the Municipality made the demands. The Public Prosecutor's Office had to sue the Municipality and the company in a legal process that continues to this day without the necessary works. The Arena and the neighborhood are flooded.

Let's hope that new mistakes are not made. In the press, the governor is already boasting that he will hire international consultancies, there is talk of one specializing in hurricanes in the USA and big deals in Brazil for Lava-Jato.

Why not resume existing studies, projects and plans? Why not work with the accumulated experience of what has worked well over this half century and complete it with the works that are missing in Porto Alegre and the metropolitan region? Why not work with the public University and its internationally recognized Hydraulic Research Institute (IPH)? Why doesn't the City Hall reorganize the DEP or provide it with the structure, personnel and resources to fulfill its role within the DMAE? After all, this body should not have so many resources invested financially when it has not yet completely universalized sewage treatment in the capital and we still have neighborhoods with a lack of treated water.

If none of this is done, we are left with the possibility of making Mayor Sebastião Melo's prophetic words come true when criticizing his predecessor in 2020 for not carrying out the works: “When the mayor doesn't make the changes that the city needs, we change the mayor ”.

*Raul Pont is a professor and former mayor of Porto Alegre.

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