Learning to live with the river – 02/13/2024 – Shireen Mahdi

Learning to live with the river – 02/13/2024 – Shireen Mahdi

Last year revealed once again, and very clearly, the human cost of climate disasters in Brazil. The year 2023 was the hottest ever recorded and resulted in historic droughts in the Amazon and successive heat waves across the country. However, the floods in the southern region were the events with the most loss of life, with a final toll of more than 130 deaths.

Of the disasters recorded in Brazil last year by the National Center for Monitoring Natural Disasters, 81% occurred in the South or Southeast, and the majority were related to climate events. The impacts — worsened by the effects of El Nino — were felt throughout the region and included the landslides in São Sebastião, in the state of São Paulo, in February, which killed 64 people; and the floods in Rio Grande do Sul in September, which claimed 50 human lives. Is it just the unstoppable force of nature, or can more be done to increase our climate resilience?

The impact of climate events in the south of the country is not a fait accompli and can be overcome. Lives do not need to be lost year after year. However, bold public policies, significant investments and strong local leadership will be needed to reverse this situation. The expectation, based on future climate scenarios, is that the intensity of extreme events will increase in most Brazilian regions; therefore, the time to act is now.

Brazil can draw on examples from other countries that have adapted in the face of similar climate threats. The Netherlands, for example, learned, not without difficulties, to work with nature and find ways to “make space for the river”. This is a concept coined by the Dutch after decades of repeated flooding. The main philosophy behind the “room for the river” idea is to restore natural floodplain areas wherever possible, to protect inhabited areas elsewhere.

To some extent, this vision already applies to some of the South’s most vulnerable river basins, but it has yet to be put into practice. The Itajaí Valley, in Santa Catarina, for example, is one of the most vulnerable areas to flood risks. For more than a decade, the region has had a master plan to reduce such risks. These investments could help change flood cycles — from a few years to half a century. However, the investment needs are enormous, and it will take many development partners and significant political will to realize this vision.

Furthermore, it is not just about large-scale operations to control the flow of rivers. It is also necessary to understand how cities invest in resilience locally, improving drainage and creating green spaces to improve runoff. These investments at the local level can often make a real difference in the short term. Equally important is understanding the dynamics of river basins and reflecting these dynamics when planning cities and infrastructures. Today, many mayors face difficult choices about how to modify built-up areas that present too high a risk to remain inhabited.

It is impossible to completely prevent environmental disasters; Preparation and early warning are key to saving lives. Part of this has to do with quality data, models and predictions. However, this also presupposes effective communication and good engagement with the public.

Blumenau City Hall, in Santa Catarina, is a pioneer in this regard, having launched its Alerta Blue application in 2015. The application informs, in real time, river levels and weather forecasts to 96 thousand local users. For the future to be more resilient, it is necessary to expand initiatives like this.

In the case of governments, preparation also means finding ways to pre-plan the budget in order to guarantee the rapid transfer of resources to affected areas, and offering incentives so that, in calmer times, cities invest in reducing risks. for future events.

Ultimately, the responsibility for investing in a resilient future and promoting climate adaptation must be shared by all of us. There are many tools and learnings available, and Brazil can build a resilient future for its southern states with partnerships, technical cooperation and investments.

This column was written in collaboration with Jack Campbell, senior disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank.

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