Brazil: Flooded With Regret

(With thanks for research and writing assistance from Marium Gul and Jennifer Barron)

Brazil’s floods in recent days, stunningly echoed in Australia, highlight the climate hazards that pose a major threat to citydwellers’ welfare, not only in Brazil, but the world over. They also point to major policy deficiencies that implicate government, private sector and communities themselves.

History of destruction. As most of the news reports highlighted (BBC, NYT, Christian Science Monitor), the largest recorded disaster prior to this past week’s extreme floods in Brazil was in 1967 when Sao Paulo mudslides killed up to 430 people, a death toll already far surpassed by this week’s tragedy. This is the fourth consecutive year that Brazil has endured such devastating destruction from prolonged rains and landslides. I myself was horrified less than one year ago, ironically shortly after the World Urban Forum concluded, to be perched comfortably in Rio while watching footage of Niteroi’s favelas sliding down the hillsides just across the Bay.

Lack of foresight and much worse. Not only were the cities affected located right in floodplains, but also the force of the floods was magnified by the steep downhill slopes and dense settlements in those vulnerable areas. A combination of government laxity, real estate speculation, poor urban land management and corruption allows marginal urban areas to be developed – in this case, by formal and informal developments – and inadequate drainage infrastructure to remain unimproved. Governments then ok projects in precarious zones not considering the potential for the rare but devastating flood event. These risks and the need to ensure that project economics take into account environmental risks have arguably been discussed in Brazil for at least two decades.

Private profits, public risks. Planning challenges are absolutely crucial here. Leaving these aside (not our core competency), let’s talk about private developers and individuals to highlight how fragmented building and construction is in developing country cities and what can be done.

I’ve interviewed many a real estate developer in both Brazil and in India whose blank stare or awkward stammer communicated everything I needed to know to conclude that disaster resilience and preparedness isn’t even on the radar, let alone climate adaptation. In many countries, the 25-year, 50-year, and 100-year flood benchmarks aren’t even known, let alone regulated in building codes. As a developer, you build for a specific moment in time, after which you sell and exit with no or limited liability for the integrity of your projects in case of a major disaster like this.

For private individuals, the most vulnerable of whom are already underprivileged, Raquel Rolnick of USP aptly points out in her blog that they don’t live in high risk zones because they want to or because they’re stupid. Citydwellers in Brazil (and elsewhere) live in precarious area because of the shortage of available affordable land in the city and inadequate housing in central urban districts near people’s jobs. Those people have mostly built their own homes, room by room with family savings and scant credit.

The vulnerability of these built structures is amplified by:

  • low quality materials and inadequate building techniques, resulting in low structural strength
  • inability to afford building stronger and better (due to lack of means and knowledge)
  • lack of recognition of the intensity of the risk/exposure in floodplains and vulnerable areas
  • insufficient initiatives to meet low-income housing needs
  • lack of initiatives to build in consideration of the worst case scenario or 100-year flood

What needs to happen? Not only do governments need to do a better job of urban land and environmental management so that excluded groups aren’t pushed into marginal, precarious settlements, but, more importantly, infrastructure and building codes (and the enforcement of building codes) in those areas – public, private formal and private informal/self-built needs to be upgraded with flood risk in mind. After all, people often return to those places even after a major disaster for lack of choice.

A word for social entrepreneurs and impact investors in housing. Housing and cities are without a doubt one of the major challenges of coming decades, as well as a nearly unparalleled business opportunity in developing countries. Whether it’s environmental, social or economic risk, those who are in the position to design, plan and invest in business models in this space have a responsibility to do no harm, intentional or otherwise.

Microfinance institutions investing in housing improvement loans need to take care that the improvements are helping their clients become more adaptive and secure not less – not only for human reasons but also for the sake of risk management. Builders and developers whose business model relies on marginal, low-cost land in environmentally sensitive zones can’t overlook disaster resilience. Investors in these projects have a responsibility to ask the right questions to ensure this capital doesn’t get deployed in high risk projects with disastrous outcomes.

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