Science

Brazil mudslides: Climate change makes favelas disasters waiting to happen

Her mother’s body had been found the day before, far from the broken vestiges of her red-brick house. The avalanche of mud that came through here last week, destroying everything in its path, had arrived with such force that it had carried her body hundreds of yards, depositing it far below, at the base of the mountain. Neves now had little hope that her father had survived. She just wanted to find his body.

She closed her eyes and took an accounting of loss: Gone were 10 relatives, many more friends and her childhood home. But she had already decided she wouldn’t leave this cliffside community where she herself had narrowly missed being killed.

“Where would I go?” said Neves, 38. “You could decide to leave this neighborhood because of a landslide, only to arrive in another, just in time for another landslide.”

Brazil, like much of the world, is increasingly being forced to reckon with the everyday impacts of climate change. Scientists say it is largely responsible for the extreme weather events that have recently struck the country — first intense droughts, then punishing rains, and now flooding from north to south that has left hundreds dead.

Late on the afternoon of Feb. 15, in the cloud-cloaked mountains of Petrópolis, a historic city 44 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, there began a downpour. Within hours, a month’s worth of rain had saturated the city. The surge unleashed floods and mudslides that killed nearly 200 people, disappeared hundreds more — and made starkly clear how defenseless the favelas of Brazil will be in a new era of destabilizing climate change.

The precarious, impoverished communities, which often spill across sheer ridges, in defiance of geography and gravity, are the country’s most distinguishing architectural feature. They have always suffered disproportionately during natural disasters. But as rains and floods increase in frequency and ferocity, scientists expect them to become still more vulnerable to tragedy.

“This is a ticking time bomb,” said Marcelo Fischer Gramani, a geologist at the Institute for Technological Research in São Paulo. “And it’s already beginning to explode.”

Brazil now has a problem that many here fear is impossible to solve. In a country of profound inequality and widespread poverty, the poor have long been locked out of the formal housing market, clustering together in often unsafe locations. The nation does not have the resources, the logistical capacity or the political will to relocate the estimated 4 million Brazilians in areas of risk, housing analysts say, let alone the underlying social issues that first gave rise to the favelas.

So instead, people wait for the next disaster.

This was the future Neves considered as she searched the muck for her father’s body.

“Nowhere is safe,” she said.

A housing crisis long ignored

The story of the favela always begins with need.

Without anywhere to go, the homeless and dispossessed descend upon a piece of land and, with little or no risk analysis, begin to fortify it. First comes an assembly of hovels. Then plumbing, electricity, cable television, brick houses and, eventually, schools and businesses. Between 1985 and 2020, the amount of land occupied by favelas in Brazil nearly doubled as the country failed to address inequalities that, historians say, have grown out of its past as the principal destination of enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1888, Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, freed enslaved Africans — but gave them nowhere to live. Along the sheer hills surrounding the Rio de Janeiro wharf, where many of them first reached Brazil, rose the country’s first favelas. Those communities are still filled with people — many of whom have neither the capital nor the credit to enter the country’s formal housing market.

“Brazil has never given much of its population any type of access to land ownership,” said Isadora de Andrade Guerreiro, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of São Paulo. “People live in the informal economy so there’s no way for them to get financing. So when you have vacant areas, people without anywhere to go will go and occupy them.”

Once people are settled, moving them out of their homes — even when the land on which they’re built is clearly not suitable for habitation — is extremely difficult. People assume the risk not because they’re unaware of it, housing analysts say, but because they have no other choice. The neighborhood is close to work. Their kids are in school nearby. Even if they were to leave the house, someone else would move in.

“This isn’t someone who doesn’t know that there isn’t risk,” said Leonardo Freitas, who helped write a 2019 Rio de Janeiro city report on flooding. “This is someone who wants a home. They know something could happen one day, but hope it doesn’t.”

In January 2011, in the mountain range north of Rio, more rain fell in 24 hours than was expected for the entire month. Landslides and floods killed more than 900 people across several towns. In the years afterward, in flood-prone Petrópolis, officials released several risk assessment reports. The findings were bleak: Nearly one-fifth of the city was either vulnerable or extremely vulnerable to additional disasters. More than 7,100 families should be resetted.

But few were ever moved — a failure now exacerbated by the mounting impacts of climate change. Rain itself has begun to change in Brazil — not in annual volume, but in the form it takes. Showers increasingly come down in machine-gun bursts — gushers that bring weeks’ worth of rain in hours. In São Paulo, the largest city in the Americas, the number of days per year with four inches of rainfall has more than tripled in the past two decades. A similar trend has been seen in other state capitals.

“The rains are more intense, more rapid and stronger,” said Christovam Barcellos, a climatologist at the research institute Fiocruz. “This is a sign of climate change: It was once rare for it to rain this way, but it has become much less rare.”

‘I heard all of their screams’

At the top of a mountain above Petrópolis, a teenage girl was lying in bed listening to music when she noticed the downpour still hadn’t let up.

Eduarda Souza, 16, got up and went to the window. She could barely see the city far below, but she felt safe up here. The mountainside above the house looked sturdy and, she thought, unlikely to give way. She went back to listening to music. Then she heard a terrible noise.

It sounded as if the land was opening up. The ground shook. She ran outside for a better view. It was difficult to believe: The entire mountainside was sliding away. The ground had turned into a rush of mud, plunging toward her neighbors’ homes.

“I heard all of their screams,” she said. “But then the wave hit, and the screams stopped.”

Her father, Davidson da Silva Mello, 40, was down in the chaos of the city. He had been busy working his job, picking up cans to recycle at markets and restaurants, when the landslides began to cascade.

He called his wife, who was home with his three children.

In the background of the call, he heard a thunderous sound. His wife yelled: “What is happening, what is happening, what is happening?” Then the line dropped.

Convinced his entire family had just been killed, he raced up the mountain. When he got to his community, he felt a swell of relief. His wife and children were sheltered in a day-care center. The mudslide had come within feet of flattening the house, but had largely rushed past it.

Now, days afterward, he was approaching the structure, trying to gather the courage to go inside. He went to the door and struggled to open it. Mud had infiltrated the house. He turned away, unable to confront the scene: The mud had risen to three feet. The sofa, cabinets, television — all their possessions were either buried or destroyed.

“I can’t look,” Mello said.

He walked outside and struggled to gather himself. He was done with life on the mountainside. It didn’t matter if they had to move out of the city — he wasn’t putting his family in danger anymore. His only hope here what that the city would come and destroy what was left of this house.

“Or,” he predicted, “there will soon be someone else living in it.”

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article misidentified Marcelo Fischer Gramani of the Institute for Technological Research in São Paulo as a geographer. He is a geologist. The article has been corrected.

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