São Paulo Flood Reveals Underlying Failures of Brazil’s Urban Planning

Torrential rainfall decimated the coastal areas of southeast Brazil over the Carnival weekend, forcing São Paulo state and surrounding cities to cancel celebrations and deploy rescue workers to search for dozens of displaced and injured locals. Reuters forecasts that at least 57 people have been killed, and over 4,000 have been forced from their homes. Heavy rains of more than 600 millimeters continue to pose a threat to rescue patrols on the ground attempting to salvage entire neighborhoods under water, collapsed houses, and flooded highways. São Paulo has declared a 180-day state of calamity for the impacted cities of São Sebastião, Caraguatatuba, Ilhabela, Ubatuba, Guarujá and Bertioga in the wake of what many are calling an ‘unprecedented’ weather event for the region. 

President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva visited the affected areas on Monday, February 20th to coordinate a response with state and local leaders to the challenges faced by Brazil’s infrastructure during extreme weather events. Lula pledged to help rebuild the impacted towns, emphasizing that shelter should not be established in coastal areas prone to landslides and flooding. “Sometimes nature takes us by surprise, but sometimes we also tempt nature,” Lula declared in a speech after meeting with Mayor of São Sebastio Felipe Augusto Augusto and São Paulo Governor Tarcisio de Freitas. “I think it’s important that neither happens.”

 Freitas indicated that the damages from the storm were immense, and first responders are still trying to gauge the extent of the impacts. “At some points we don’t even know what’s left of the Rio-Santos highway,” Freitas said of the route linking the region’s coastal towns. “We even raise the possibility that it collapsed, that the highway no longer exists.”  

The magnitude of damage from the São Paulo storm is not unlike other incidents that the country has weathered in recent years. Bloomberg News reports that in 2022, the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis and Recife experienced torrential rains that claimed hundreds of lives in  the ruin of landslides and major flooding. As these tragedies play out in an unending cycle due to the impending effects of climate change, researchers are trying to pinpoint the unique factors that have exaggerated Brazil’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. A 2020 study published in the journal of Climate Resilience and Sustainability found that the compounded effects of industrialization and global warming has increased the likelihood of higher volumes of rain than estimated by nearly 70% in southeast Brazil, but this statistic alone does not explain why heavy rains occurring along both coasts have consistently decimated the region’s urban city centers to such a fatal effect. A more complex answer lies in the recent history of Brazil’s urban planning initiatives, including the politically-fraught push for affordable housing ushered in by Lula during his first term. 

José de Souza Brandão Neto, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the Federal University of Pernambuco (FUPE), attributes the problem to the fact that many of Brazil’s cities have been built in proximity to topographic vulnerabilities such as valley-bottoms, and that these risk-prone locations disproportionately incur the consequences of poor urban planning. Due to a lack of investment in affordable housing in wealthy areas, many working-class people are forced to settle in nearby favelas that are poorly constructed and situated in high-risk zones for flooding. Brandão believes the issues of climate change and urban displacement in Brazil are interrelated and must be analyzed as such, telling Bloomberg News: “The unbridled growth of large Brazilian cities without rigorous urban planning is also responsible, even considering that climate change plays an important role in this process… Unless public officials take action, the trend is actually [going] to get worse.” 

For Brandão and other experts working at the intersection of these crises, Lula’s acknowledgement of Brazil’s urban planning failures with regard to climate change may present an ideal opportunity to amend prior missteps in the President’s legacy of low-income housing policy. Earlier this month, Lula signed a provisional measure to reinstate “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (PMCMV), a public housing program established under his administration in 2008 that aimed to build subsidized units in urban areas for low- and middle-income families. While the policy marked the largest investment into public housing in the nation’s history, with more than $60(US) billion allocated toward the development of 4.4 million housing units between 2009 and 2016, retrospective analyses of the PMCMV reveal various implementation failures that may have inadvertently contributed to the displacement of poorer populations into disaster-vulnerable areas.

A 2018 review of PMCMV from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows that the earliest iteration of the program gave partnering real estate developers significant discretion to settle housing projects in “peripheral locations”- distant areas that were not conveniently located near public transit and utilities, but minimized land costs and maximized profits on the part of private firms. This policy choice relegated the majority of PMCMV housing projects to poorly-integrated fringes with underdeveloped public infrastructure, worsening existing dynamics of segregation and the isolation of the poor-working class from major cities. With a greater segment of lower-income individuals losing access to public transportation, favelas and other informal settlements that precipitated more hazardous living conditions (including higher disaster-susceptibility) continued to flourish in proximity to major cities.

Surveys of PMCMV settlements in both Rio de Janeiro and the São Paulo Metropolitan Area reproduce these findings, and coincide with recent observations about the increased health and safety risks associated with natural disasters that primarily impact poor communities located on the fringes of city centers. Most crucially, the Lincoln Institute additionally found in their report that the PMCMV settlements surveyed across these locations did not take advantage of vacant land existing within urban areas that were better serviced by transportation, infrastructural support and resources. 

The PMCMV was rebranded as the “Casa Verde e Amarela” Program (PCVA) under former President Jair Bolsonaro in late 2020. The new program under Bolsonaro sought to improve the quality of social housing and lower interest rates for prospective owners, but stipulated a maximum income range that excluded lower-income borrowers in need of direct subsidy. Rud Rafael, a spokesperson for the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), likened the policy to “a housing credit program, not as a social housing program.”

Subsequent research on the PCVA shows that the structural disenfranchisement of the poor under Bolsonaro’s reform has not considerably improved from the time of PMCMV’s implementation. A 2021 study from City Law Magazine observed that “the program was not linked to the objective of solving more complex problems such as the treatment ofrisk areas, de-densification, or access to sanitation”, leaving many of the same environmental and public health risks related to informal settlements in-tact.  

The gaps in adequate resource delivery that have sustained through 15 years of Brazil’s affordable housing policy will need immediate remedy as Lula and state government leaders coordinate local actions around natural disaster risk-prevention. On this front, Professor Brandão of UFPE has recommended “increasing public investment in programs of basic sanitation, macrodrainage, construction of dams and slopes, popular housing, and urbanization of favelas” as key strategies to mitigate the devastation of floods on Brazil’s coasts.

Ultimately, the onus will fall on Brazilian policymakers to enact these requests into meaningful policy change that prioritizes equity, climate justice, and human rights. While Brazil mourns the countless lives lost and upended from natural disasters in São Paulo and beyond, elected officials must commit to fortifying the nation’s housing infrastructure in service of national climate resilience, and in honor of the resilience shown by working-class communities. 


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