Adapting to natural disaster risk: the case of Brazil's flood

How can we minimize the impacts of natural disasters?

Felipe Dana / AP
Mud-covered slopes show the tracks of landslides in Nova Friburgo, Brazil, Jan. 17. Brazil's army on Monday sent 700 soldiers to help throw a lifeline to desperate neighborhoods that have been cut off from food, water or help in recovering bodies since mudslides killed at least 655 people. Could climate modeling and early warning systems have prevented some of the tragedy?

More than 600 people have died in mudslides that ripped through hillside communities near Brazil's Rio de Janeiro. Why did this happen? Can "political economy" teach us anything about how to reduce such loss when future disasters occur?

"The hardest hit towns — Petrópolis, Teresópolis and Nova Friburgo — have been scenes of widespread devastation since last week. ... Communications, electricity and potable water were still lacking in several areas, leaving disaster experts to lament Brazil’s lack of preparedness for deadly rains, which they say are becoming more common." NY Times Source

So, the experts know that the events are taking place more often but the towns were not ready to respond. Why?

"For much of its history, Brazil has been blessed like almost no other country of its size to be almost free of such calamities. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, erupting volcanoes — none have proved threats to Brazil. Until recently, the most costly and best-known disasters were severe droughts, said Margareta Wahlstrom, the assistant secretary general for the United NationsInternational Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

“But in the last few years the increasing frequency of floods, high winds and storms has become part of the new normal of Brazil,” she said. “The political choice we have today is to not treat disasters as events that come and go, but decide that you plan for them and realize that they are very costly.”"

So, a Bayesian would say that people will need to update their probability assessments and realize that they do face new increased risks from natural disaster.

The New York Times contrasts the recent Australian floods with the Brazilian floods. Many fewer people died in the Australian Floods. Why?

"The hillside areas around Rio lacked early warning systems or effective community organizations that might have helped residents to wake one another as the rains intensified last Tuesday night, disaster experts and residents said. Most people are believed to have died early Wednesday morning as they slept, when water-loosened earth swept their houses away."

The article continues:

"Australia had not experienced severe floods since the early 1970s, Ms. Wahlstrom said, but annual cyclones and minor floods led officials to develop early-warning systems and evacuation guides that residents were regularly drilled on. Better drainage infrastructure and better quality housing also helped, she said."

So, what this article isn't completely honest about is; "who lived in the hillside housing in Brazil?" I'm guessing that it was the poor. Will a sociologist do a study of who died in this natural disaster? My conjecture is that the poor lived in this housing, didn't have access to the Internet and "text messages" to be tipped off about the flooding and didn't have an "escape plan". Who is the political representative for the affected community? Did he have any incentives (such as re-election incentives) to improve the land zoning in the hillside communities or is this an "informal community" where there isn't formal rule of law?

Brazil is not a poor country but everyone knows that it has a high degree of income inequality. If the poor grew richer, would fewer people die in a flood? I believe the answer is yes. Cross-country evidence (see my 2005 paper) and within country evidence (see this Katrina Study of who died in New Orleans) support this claim.

To adapt to climate change risk, we need to grow richer.

The Rio officials hint at illegality of people living on marginal lands as a cause here;

"Rio de Janeiro State officials have cited irregular occupation of areas at risk of floods and landslides as the main reason that so many have been dying. Carlos Minc, Rio’s environment secretary, said Thursday that the state’s civil defense authority urgently needed to relocate residents in high-risk areas. “The next rain will destroy everything that still remains,” he said. “We do not have time for contemplation.”
The city of Rio, in geological mappings, has identified 177 regions with areas at risk to rain-related events."

This last sentence is crucial. In Climatopolis, I talk at length about how GIS information systems will be used to provide pinpoint maps about where actual risks are concentrated. In such risky areas (once this becomes public knowledge), land prices will fall and insurance prices will be high. Government must use its zoning powers to prohibit people from living there. I realize that poor people like cheap rents but if our goal is to protect life from such disasters then government must step in and reduce access or such environmental justice disasters will occur again.

So, Brazil can protect its poor from natural disasters in two ways;

1. it can invest in institutions and free markets to reduce poverty. Richer people will not choose to live in risky locations and will have access to more self protection strategies.
2. it can pinpoint where are the areas at risk from natural disasters and "police" them so that people do not live in these low quality, risky areas.


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