Brazil’s lack of urban planning still to blame for disasters

. Feb 10, 2020
Rainfall in São Paulo city center. Photo: Paulo Pinto/FP urban planning Rainfall in São Paulo city center. Photo: Paulo Pinto/FP

Back in the 19th century, a momentous rainstorm in São Paulo “burst dams in Reúno and Bixiga, threw the romantic Anhangabaú from its riverbed, destroyed twelve houses, knocked down the Abdication bridge, which was located nearby the Praça dos Correios, and caused three deaths, besides many public and private losses.”

Since this 1850 flood, São Paulo grew from a provincial town to being one of the largest metropolises in the world. The neighborhoods have changed and the city has expanded, but the havoc caused by the rains remains a reality every summer, when the heavy tropical precipitation causes floods and landslides not only in São Paulo, but in almost every large Brazilian city—as seen in the deadly rains that battered Belo Horizonte in January. 

</p> <p>In the past twenty years, urban planning has been in the public eye, with at least three major bills approved in Congress to tackle the issue. Yet, just this week, São Paulo&#8217;s Tietê and Pinheiros rivers <a href="">burst their banks</a> once again, causing widespread destruction—a clear sign that Brazil has yet to find out how to transform regulation into actual solutions.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078991"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Laws developing, but no results</h2> <p>After Brazil&#8217;s rapid urbanization in the 20th century, every major urban center began suffering from major issues such as housing deficits,<a href=""> a lack of sanitation</a>, and strains on public transportation, which have caused both human and <a href="">environmental losses</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>In an attempt to improve its <a href="">urban planning</a> and diminish inequalities, Brazil approved the Cities Statute in 2001. The piece of legislation introduced the first rules to ensure “the use of urban properties for the common good” and guidelines for laws that aim to improve life quality and environmental conservation. The then-groundbreaking legislation established, for instance, the need for a municipal master plan for cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, to be reviewed every ten years.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="urban planning floods São Paulo" class="wp-image-31435" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1802w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Flooded areas in São Paulo&#8217;s North Zone. Photo: Paulo Pinto/FP</figcaption></figure> <p>Since 2001, Brazil has had many complementary initiatives aiming to better occupy its cities and avoid disasters. The 2012’s National Policy for Protection and Civil Defense, for instance, establishes that master plans must map out the areas subject to major landslides and floods, as well as including measures to prevent the occupation of precarious areas and relocate those who already live there, besides measures to ensure proper soil drainage.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 2015, the Metropolis Statute was another legal advance that established criteria for the integration of the different levels of government in the urban planning of metropolitan areas. It also created the Integrated Urban Development Plan, which are development guidelines created in partnership by the cities of a metropolitan area to address common issues such as socio-economic development, housing, environment, sanitation, and mobility. The deadline for the plan’s adoption nationwide was postponed to 2021.&nbsp;</p> <p>For Viviane Rubio, an architecture and urbanism professor at Mackenzie University in São Paulo, the problem is not the lack of legislation, but how to implement it and make sure it is well integrated.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The master plan needs supplementary laws, it does not work alone. It needs a mobility plan, a housing plan,” she told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “The government must have a systemic view of the issues. So, floods are the result of poorly coordinated actions: you have the population throwing garbage on the streets, the banks of the rivers are occupied, there is little oversight and investments.”</p> <p>In her view, other areas such as the housing deficit and public sanitation are directly related to the issue and, as official <a href="">data provided by IBGE shows</a>, these also remain neglected. As of 2017, only 41.5 percent of Brazilian municipalities had a basic sanitation plan.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Reaction other than prevention</h2> <p>While Brazil has had laws to organize the territories of municipalities since 1979, legislation for disaster prevention is still in its early days. As Omar Yazbek Bitar, a researcher from the Hydric Resources and Geoenvironmental Evaluation of the Institute of Technological Research (IPT) recalls, the National Policy for Protection and Civil Defense was created as a response to deadly landslides in Nova Friburgo, Petrópolis, and Teresópolis, in Rio de Janeiro state, in 2011.&nbsp;</p> <p>“Before that, all the policies were focused on response and help. This law brought, for the first time, the issue of prevention into public policy,” he told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. “It is relatively new, though. Other countries have had those systems for years before we did.”</p> <p>As a consequence, Brazil is still trying to implement some much-needed security measures while municipalities continue to suffer. From 2003 to 2016, 47.5 percent of Brazilian towns declared states of emergency or calamity due to heavy rains, according to a <a href="">National Water Agency report.</a>&nbsp;</p> <p>Brazil’s Geologic Service-CPRM, a public company connected to the Mines and Energy Ministry, is working to map the areas prone to landslides or flooding. According to its website, only 492 of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities had a chart of susceptibility to mass gravitational movements and floods—a map created to assess the risk of disasters in occupied and non-occupied areas, used to determine where and how building is possible on certain zones. When including geological risk charts, used only for occupied areas, the number of maps jumps to 1,743, but is still less than ideal.&nbsp;</p> <p>“From a technical point of view, you need the charts. Without them, you are chasing something you don’t even know where to find. If you know where the most dangerous areas are, you can see where it is not possible to build, where you need contention works. (&#8230;) But we know towns have a hard time finding good technical teams; only a few Brazilian towns have professionals such as geologists and geographers,” says Mr. Bitar.&nbsp;</p> <p>“There is no point in having those maps and not using them. Many cities do have them, but they don’t apply them correctly,&#8221; he adds.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Poor urban planning choices</h2> <p>São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, which have been hit hard in 2020&#8217;s rainy season so far, do have sufficient mapping, as well as high revenues and budgets and booming private sectors that could work alongside the public sector in urban planning projects.&nbsp;</p> <p>On the back of the floods that <a href="">killed 59 people</a> in Belo Horizonte in January, specialists found that poor urban planning choices were to blame. Over many years, local administrations of Belo Horizonte canalized some 250 km of the city&#8217;s roughly 700 km of waterways, and the growth of the city has diminished the space water has to drain into the soil. </p> <p>As a result, this year&#8217;s huge rainfall—the worst in 110 years—caused widespread destruction. Some neighborhoods saw streets collapse thanks to the excessive pressure in canalized rivers and streams.</p> <p>The cost to rebuild Brazil’s sixth most populated city is now <a href=",apos-estrago-com-chuvas-bh-vetara-canalizacao-de-corregos,70003184027">estimated at somewhere between BRL 300 million and BRL 400 million</a>. The impressive amount is, however, only half of Brazil’s monthly losses with disasters, <a href="">according to a study</a> by the Federal University of Santa Catarina and the World Bank. The research shows that, from 1995 to 2014, Brazil lost BRL 182.8 billion due to climate disasters such as drought or excessive rainfall, the equivalent to BRL 800 million per month over the period.

Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Most recently, she worked as an Editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

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