Floods in Brazil – poverty makes people more vulnerable

Torrential rain in Brazil recently led to the country’s worst ever recorded natural disaster with at least 750 people killed by the resulting floods and landslides. This national calamity hit the international news headlines at the same time that Sri Lanka was reeling from the impact of widespread flooding.

Poverty, vulnerability and disasters are linked – it is most often the poorest that are worst affected and suffer most. This was clearly visible in the Brazil landslides where it was the low income settlements built on marginal lands – in particular the steep upper slopes of hills surrounding some urban centres – that suffered most from the landslides triggered by the rain. It is their poverty that makes them more vulnerable in the first place (in this case the only place they have to build their homes is on land that is fundamentally unstable). And their capacity to cope with disasters and recover from the effects are constrained by their lack of resources – there is no insurance company to turn to for most of those effected by the recent events in Sri Lanka and Brazil; no savings put aside for that ‘rainy day’.

Disasters rob the poor of their meagre possessions, their homes and livestock and most importantly, their livelihoods. But it doesn’t have to be so. There are plenty of examples of droughts, floods and even earthquakes that have impacted on people’s lives and livelihoods without being deemed a disaster, when those people were sufficiently prepared and had the capacity to cope and recover quickly.

The Brazilian government is reported to be considering investing in a high tech radar system for detecting approaching storms in the future and allowing for early warnings to be given to those who are vulnerable. Certainly early warning systems can make a huge difference in reducing vulnerability, as the experience of Bangladesh’s system of cyclone early warning system, combined with a network of robust cyclone shelters that people can go to when the warning sounds, has shown. The technology behind early warning systems doesn’t always have to be that sophisticated either.

Practical Action has worked with local communities in the southern Terai area of Nepal, which is susceptible to flash flooding from rivers coming out of the Himalayas in the monsoon. Using mobile phones to link people a few miles up in the hills to those down on the Terai plains is often sufficient to allow a warning to be passed on in time for people downstream to be alerted to rising waters heading their way. Combined with pre-rehearsed emergency procedures this sort of approach can save not just lives but also give people time to move their most precious possessions to high ground and safety. That means, when the flood passes, they still have the sewing machine, rickshaw, agricultural tools or animals so vital to ensuring they can continue to maintain their livelihoods and recover.

Early warning, whilst important, is not sufficient to eliminate needless deaths and losses from natural disasters. In some cases, such as earthquakes, providing an early warning is often very difficult. And, in the case of the Brazil floods, even though having early warning would have reduced the death toll, it would not have reduced the loss to property and infrastructure caused by the landslides. This is where standards play such an important role. Urban planning processes tend to ignore the needs of the poor. Indeed ‘informal’ urban settlements in many countries are often deemed not to ‘officially’ exist, despite the fact that they may house the majority of a city’s population and be the source of its factory workers, cab drivers, market traders and junior civil servants. Not officially existing, leads to not being included in municipal plans and not being provided with safe and regulated building space. As a result, the urban poor are squeezed into settlement in land that is marginal and unsafe, like the steep Brazilian hillsides that suffered so badly two weeks ago. However politically difficult it may appear, planning processes and standards need to accommodate the needs of the poor if these sort of disasters are to be avoided in the future, allowing them to be incorporated safely in urban development rather than exiled to the margins. And what about those unpredictable disasters such as earthquakes? Well, with a little bit of careful design, as Practical Action has shown time and again in Peru, it is possible to provide affordable housing that is resistant to earthquakes. But again, those design approaches need to be enforced in building standards if the benefit they offer is to be widely available.

We will never be able to avoid natural disasters. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, with some planning and forethought, their impact on everyone, the poor included, does not itself have to be devastating.

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