By Peri Dias *

As a child, more than 30 years ago, summers in Brazil were pretty predictable. Some parts were great: hitting the beach, indulging in ice cream, enjoying school holidays. But there were the downsides: every January, February, and March, the news was flooded with stories of tragedies triggered by storms. Whole neighborhoods went underwater, roads stayed impassable for days, and you’d see folks trudging through waist-deep water on the news. And, tragically, lives were lost too. For decades, these summer storms have been taking lives, especially in the poorer outskirts of our cities.

It’s no wonder these anticipated tragedies stirred up such strong anger. Each summer, we’d ask ourselves: “If the authorities know it rains heavily this time of year, why don’t they take steps to keep people safe?”.

As the summer of 2024 comes to a close, with a bit of gray in my beard, I still see the same scenes from my childhood. Just in January, our lack of readiness for the storms led to 12 deaths in Rio de Janeiro, four in São Paulo, and wrecked homes and roads in 49 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul.

But there’s a difference between the tales of heavy rains Brazilians see nowadays and what we witnessed 30 years ago. When people affected by the downpours speak out, it’s more and more common to hear them say, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” describing the sheer force of the storms and the resulting floods, tree collapses, and landslides.

Have you noticed that? It used to be that we’d wrap up discussions and reports about storms with a line like: “Same old story, year in, year out, nothing changes.” But now, the overall sentiment has shifted to: “What’s going on with the world, folks?” Reactions like this are popping up in Minas Gerais, , Rio Grande do Sul,, Pernambuco, , Acre, , São Paulo, , Mato Grosso do Sul,, Rio de Janeiro, and many other states.

Science confirms

Cheia inédita do rio Acre em Brasiléia (AC), em 2024: não e só impressão, alguns lugares estão mesmo sofrendo com chuvas cada vez mais concentradas. Crédito: Marcos Vicentti / Agência Brasil

Unprecedented flooding of the Acre River in Brasiléia (AC) in 2024: it’s more than just a hunch, certain areas are indeed grappling with heavier, more intense rainfall. Photo credit: Marcos Vicentti / Agência Brasil.

It’s no wonder that in recent years, we’ve had this sense of something unprecedented unfolding. Scientific studies confirm that due to the global climate crisis, we’ve already stepped into an era where”extreme rainfall events, capable of triggering disasters, are becoming more frequent in Brazil./span>” no Brasil.

Two factors connected to the climate crisis are driving the more frequent occurrence of “disastrous rains” in Brazil.

1) The climate crisis is changing the average annual rainfall.
In certain parts of Brazil, like the eastern Amazon and large swathes of the Northeast region, droughts are becoming more frequent and severe. Meanwhile, in areas like Greater São Paulo and pretty much the entire South region, there’s been a notable increase in the average annual rainfall.

2) In some places, the climate crisis is intensifying rainfall.
In Porto Alegre, São Paulo, and Belém, three cities quite far apart, we’re seeing a big increase in the number of days each year with heavy rain, over 80 mm. That used to be considered a lot. And in places like São Paulo, we’re now getting days with over 100 mm of rain several times a year, which hardly ever happened before.

In other words, the “I’ve never seen rain like this” phenomenon is really happening, in certain places and at certain times. It’s not just hearsay.

Of course, there are other factors contributing to the increased danger of storms. Our collective decisions as a society are central to the ongoing tragedy of heavy rains in Brazil. On the one hand, we’ve shaped our cities with embanked rivers, vast expanses of concrete, limited drainage infrastructure, and, most significantly, a significant portion of the population residing in precarious housing atop hillsides and along the banks of streams and dams. What’s the result? Water with no escape route and families left with nowhere to seek refuge.

Lately, with increased and more intense rainfall, this disastrous mix has only worsened. Bearing the brunt of the impact are Brazilian women and those in the most vulnerable social positions, predominantly black families affected by unjust social policies dating back to Colonial Brazil. It’s in the projects, the favelas, or the semi-rural areas with scant public infrastructure where homes literally crumble.

And just to make sure it doesn’t slip under the radar, there were those who argued, in a heated debate following this year’s January storms in Rio de Janeiro, that environmental racism isn’t even a thing. Yet, a quick look at the profiles of those who lost their lives hints at a clear social and racial pattern in these fatalities. In a report by Carolina Pimentel for Agência Brasil, researchers clearly explain the link between environmental racism and floods.

Desperate times call for desperate measures

Enchente no Rio: pressão sobre governos por medidas de adaptação e limitação à crise climática pode ajudar a evitar nova tragédias

Rio Floods: Urging governments to adapt and implement measures to address the climate crisis can help prevent further tragedies.

Before, it was already outrageous for governments to ignore protecting the population from predictable tragedies caused by extreme rains. Now, their inaction has become criminally irresponsible as unexpected downpours grow more frequent. The era of “It’s the same thing every year” is over. We’ve taken a turn for the worse. Now we’re asking ourselves, “What surprises will this summer bring?”

To tackle the climate crisis and ready our cities for storms, we must engage in efforts that push the governments of Brazil, as well as those of other nations, states, and municipalities, to take action in safeguarding the population, particularly the most vulnerable. Such measures include:

a) Advocate for a just energy transition.
The primary driver of the climate crisis is the combustion of oil, gas, and coal. It’s entirely feasible and highly beneficial for society to replace these fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. One of the key advantages of this transition is to mitigate the very climate extremes that cause such alarm.

Brazil has a unique opportunity to take the lead on this agenda over the next two years: in 2024, during its presidency of the G20, a gathering of the world’s 20 largest economies, and in 2025, as the host and president of COP30. The Brazilian government’s dedication to advancing the energy transition in these two influential forums could potentially save thousands of lives both domestically and globally.

b) Improve housing and urban policies.
It’s crucial to listen to the voices of people living in vulnerable areas and to learn from the mistakes of decades past. There’s no sense in cramming everyone into high-risk areas; sooner or later, the consequences will catch up with us. We must ensure adequate housing, with proper public infrastructure, in safe locations.

c) Implement urban adaptation measures to tackle the climate crisis
Promising initiatives worldwide demonstrate that there are effective strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate extremes. Early warnings about evacuation protocols, for instance, significantly reduce casualties. Actions such as clearing river channels, expanding green spaces to absorb rainwater, and maintaining urban vegetation health to minimize the risk of tree falls during storms are just a few examples of what local governments can pursue.

Securing financing for these initiatives often proves to be a stumbling block for their execution, underscoring the importance of the Brazilian government’s support for states and municipalities in this regard. Given their historical role in exacerbating the climate crisis, wealthy nations also bear a responsibility to finance adaptation measures for extreme events in the Global South, including interventions in cities. It’s essential to keep pressing the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and other developed countries to not only allocate these resources but also ensure fair and efficient management of their transfer.

We’re in an age of unparalleled climate challenges. Unless we rally to demand immediate climate action, the tragic scenes that define our summers could become even more terrifying.

I can’t shake this thought about the future. I keep imagining a conversation I’d love to have as summer rolls around: “Hey, remember when folks used to die in storms? Thank goodness, those days are behind us!” Will I ever hear that?

  • Peri Dias is the Communications Manager at for Latin America


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