Flood warnings in Brazil for Latin American economies

Flood warnings in Brazil for Latin American economies
Flood warnings in Brazil for Latin American economies

Photograph showing the magnitude of a flood this Sunday in the municipality of Río Pardo, state of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil).

Photo: EFE – Andre Borges

The images are beyond belief. Entire cities are under water, babies are lifted into helicopters, lifeguards and residents move by boat through the once-bustling streets of the state capital, Porto Alegre, and its main airport is closed until further notice.

Brazil is shocked by the disaster caused by heavy rains that hit Rio Grande do Sul, its southernmost state and the fourth richest in the country. The cost of this historic catastrophe is heartbreaking and deserves our sympathy and attention. However, while each of these climate disasters is unique in its own way, they come together under a sequence of damaging events sweeping across Latin America that should spur serious political rethinking.

Last year, a category five hurricane devastated Acapulco, cargo ships were unable to pass through the Panama Canal due to extremely low water levels, and massive forest fires claimed more than 130 lives in Chile. Argentina’s worst drought in at least a century sent the economy into recession, and Bogotá residents were asked to leave the city due to water rationing measures.

According to a United Nations report, since 2000 natural disasters have affected more than 190 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, or three out of every ten inhabitants. Let us leave aside, for now, the question of to what extent this is related to climate change or El Niño/La Niña weather phenomena. The reality is that, regardless of the causes, governments and citizens must strengthen their disaster preparedness systems and design emergency strategies because events that were previously unlikely now occur with greater frequency.

It is true that Latin America does not have a monopoly on extreme weather conditions, but it is generally considered to be one of the most disaster-prone areas of the world. The combination of its rich biodiversity and dense urban populations with governments’ fiscal constraints, high debt burden and poor planning makes the region vulnerable. In Brazil, according to figures from the NGO Contas Abertas, federal spending to prevent and recover from natural disasters fell almost 80% between 2013 and last year (it was budgeted to increase significantly in 2024). Now the Brazilian government is rushing to help victims of the Rio Grande do Sul floods, with initial plans to spend nearly 51 billion reais ($10 billion), a sum that will likely rise once reconstruction costs are included. . Stronger disaster preparedness mechanisms would have saved lives and money in the long run and avoided situations in which authorities “make it up as they go,” as one report characterized the current rescue effort.

In essence, the more countries prepare for these inevitable events, the better and cheaper the response will be once they occur. Of course, this simple idea encompasses very complex objectives, policies and negotiations, from identifying key risks to investing in rapid response services and addressing infrastructure deficiencies. Getting fiscal accounts in order and designing a legal framework that allows for rapid emergency deployment without opening the door to unrelated spending is a pending task for policymakers and legislators. In addition, financial protection and other creative options must be adopted, such as so-called catastrophe bonds (as Mexico and Jamaica did). Ideally, growth and development objectives should not clash with the environment because they would include disaster risk mitigation in their investment models.

Fortunately, much work has already been done by multilateral banks and organizations, the private sector and governments in the region and abroad. The most difficult part remains the political will: in a region used to living day to day, it is difficult to convince leaders that saving and preparing for the future is a policy worth pursuing. It typically requires building consensus among different parties and cooperation across the region, something that is not fashionable with the fierce ideological battles waged by Latin America’s left and right. And although more environmentally conscious leaders have emerged, such as Gabriel Boric in Chile and Gustavo Petro in Colombia, climate denial and indifference continue to resonate in certain political and business circles.

Another way to understand the logic behind this imperative is to appeal to any politician’s selfish incentives: How much reputational risk are you personally willing to take by not addressing an issue that could harm your career? The floods will seriously test the leadership of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a time when his popularity has declined amid a widespread sense of inaction. Addressing climate change was a campaign promise of Lula, who made two visits to the flooded area but still faces some criticism from those who perceived his response as limited. Brazil hosts the Group of Twenty this year and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2025 and — somewhat more politically impactful — holds municipal elections in October. So the president doesn’t have much room for error.

With this question answered, the next challenge is to avoid losing political momentum when the immediate urgency dissipates. And beyond the emergency, Latin America should have an active voice in helping solve the underlying problem of climate change.

There will be time to analyze the political implications of this disaster and judge the Government’s strategy. Scientists could also shed light on the extent to which this extreme rainfall could be attributed to new weather patterns. For now, the focus should be on recovery, ensuring that the gaúchos (as the locals are known) have access to food, water and electricity and can return to their homes safely.

The optimistic vision of this drama is captured in scenes in which Brazilians come out en masse to provide physical, emotional and financial support to the victims. This inspiring solidarity fuels hopes that Brazil can overcome the polarization of recent years. But these noble human responses must be followed by the implementation of smart policies and reliable mechanisms.

“Don’t forget Rio Grande do Sul,” pleaded a local journalist reporting from land while trying to survive in the waters.

The best way not to forget is to remember to be better prepared next time.

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