In early January 2011, a series of flash floods and mudslides struck the Brazilian Serrana mountain region near Rio de Janeiro and the states of Minas Gerais and São Paulo, destroying buildings, roads, houses, among other facilities. Rescue teams from the Brazilian National Civil Defense, the army and other institutions made their way to remote towns with aid and transportation.
These events have encouraged efforts for better equipped rescue teams, more community awareness and mobilisation regarding disaster prevention along with dialogue regarding risk management, resilience systems and nationwide preparedness.
Humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and reconstruction
A federal government special Cabinet has been created to help the victims in Rio de Janeiro, and is responsible for mobilising different institutions in order to help the municipalities in the states affected by the disasters and for supporting the local rehabilitation. Its main activity is the identification of the demands coming directly from the affected population, local governments and municipalities.
National Civil Defense teams, the Army, NGOs teams and those of civil society have been organised as a task force to attend victims and coordinate all donations coming from other parts of Brazil. Tons of hygiene and cleaning products, non-perishable food, mattresses, clothes, shoes, and water are being sent to disaster areas.
The National Bank for Social and Economical Development (BNDES) has joined these humanitarian efforts and will lend around US$ 236,3 million to finance (micro)enterprises from the disaster affected municipalities. This initiative may encourage the reemergence of companies which have lost everything due to the disaster and may boost commerce in the region.
The “My house, my life” housing program will transfer people from risk areas to safer locations – building around 6000 houses for families made homeless by the floods.
Brazil’s government will count on the experience and funds of the World Bank, which will allocate a US$ 485 million loan for the reconstruction of houses and buildings destroyed and for the relocation of families in risk areas.
The BNDES will also have resources to map the risk areas, an initial step to elaborate a plan to avoid future tragedies.
Maximization of resilience and disaster preparedness for the future
The Ministry of Science and Technology has announced the creation of the National System for Prevention and Early Warning of Natural Disasters, which will feature a new radar system and a National Prevention Center, This Center should integrate the analysis of weather forecast and geographic data to be used primarily by the National Secretariat of Civil Defense. Moreover, this Center should map the areas of risk countrywide, so whenever the National Institute of Spatial Researches (Inpe) forecasts storms for these regions, the National Civil Defense will be notified and will be able to take the necessary measures. The system will cost around US$ 288 million. The idea is to improve weather forecasting and provide information on the most common natural disasters in Brazil, such as landslides and flooding. The complete system is expected to be operational in four years. However, data from the most critical areas at risk should be available next summer.
Challenges for the future of Brazil’s humanitarian response
Brazil is a federation with autonomous entities in regional and local levels, arranging an effective national plan against disasters may be a challenge. That means states and municipalities are therefore responsible for structuring their own local secretariat of civil defense, in terms of financing, infrastructure, along with human and material resources. Hence these entities may lack the political strength and will to promote and prioritize such improvements among other aspects of a busy political agenda.
Planning for the worst
The historic lack of urban development plans and the chaotic growth of cities have contributed to worsen the effects of natural disasters.
This is linked to the relation between possibility and probability regarding the government action or inactions. Governments should assume the possibility of disasters happening and maintain a structure to rapidly respond to them. However, many local authorities in Brazil use the relatively low risk of disasters, in order to justify the lack of expenditure and infrastructure to deal with these situations, which may contribute to increase the probability of disasters.
The National Civil Defense has developed an agreement with the University of Santa Catarina in order to demand the elaboration of a 'National Plan for Risk Management', which will focus on three main areas: diagnosis, methodology and field work and training.
Developing a culture of preparedness
Improving Brazil’s preparedness for disaster also means developing a culture of disaster prevention and investments in resilience, which is no easy task and demands a high community involvement. In this context, the National Civil Defense has had a significant impact through the community centers.